I am in the middle of a literal spring clean up at my home. It's a mess - the house, the cleanup. I get hold of some old artefact or book or an album and then spend the next half hour pouring through its pages instead of stacking it somewhere near and neat.
As I start this letter tonight an album full of monuments in Delhi and Agra sits next to me. It takes me places.
This is Bombay Daak. I am Maneesh. In this issue we talk about travel.
The latest edition of Craig Mod's Ridgeline featured Beau Miles' 90 Km, two day walk to work. Towards the end of the mail, he writes of travelling - that to travel is to do it ...slowly, thoughtfully, with respect for the local culture, in ways that minimally disrupt, that add to the richness of the place you’re visiting...
And that struck a chord with me. I gravitated towards this line in particular: ...that add to the richness of the place...
And I've been thinking about that all weekend. How do you add to the richness of the place you are visiting? How can the place be richer, left better for you having been there?
The Cost of Travelling
In 2018, social scientist Roger Tyers pledged to stop flying for work and leisure. Soon afterwards, he won a research fellowship that included fieldwork in China. So he decided to take the train from Southampton to Shanghai, a journey of almost two weeks.
To a lot of people who like to travel, these are morally bewildering times. Something that seemed like pure escape and adventure has become double-edged, harmful, the epitome of selfish consumption. Going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
Via NYTimes | If Seeing the World Helps Ruin it, Should we Stay Home?
It is not just a question of climate change, that tourism kills the very places it seeks to promote is a debate going on since a few years now. In 2020 we had an year to sit back and consider our choices in this matter. To take a step back and take stock of why we go to the places we go to. Instead, I think we all just herded like in the Running of the Bulls to get anywhere but here.
Don't get me wrong. I love to travel. How much do we need of it? That's the question. That's my question.
There are other questions too. Who benefits from you travelling? Who is it harmful for?
The answer in itself is not important, it is taking the time to consider this.
The world is full of tracks and paths and routes, many invisible to our eyes, currents brushing the face of things, whispers, yesterday’s wind across the earth below. As I write, I am beneath one of these hidden roads, the exodus of birds heading south to Africa for the winter vast and, mostly, unseen.
Invisible Roads, Alexander Crow's Not a Travel Writer.
Crow's newsletter charmed me with his voice and the sense of space he creates with his words. The editions are long but the writing is comforting. Some are beautiful.
Good travel writing is invisible today.
The bulk of the blame lies with travel aggregators and their search optimised tendencies. But then, I don't know what to search to find what I like. With writing you don't know what you like till you see it anyway.
Where else do you go?
Books? The popular ones now read like memoirs with a pretty background. The sense of the place lost to inner journey of the author. But if you walk long enough on the bylanes of the web, something comes into the view. You just have to be at the right place.
It is far easier to find great travel writing in the scripts of great YouTube videos today.
I first watched Beau Miles's channel last year when he built this Cabin as a gift to his wife. There are many other channels of DIY people, but there is a raw and real quality to Miles's work that I found attractive straightaway. It is meditative but not slow, and has a compelling narrative.
This latest video is another enjoyable treat. The tracks of human ruin littered on our roads lie bare in Miles's home made adventure. What is otherwise invisible is brought to focus but sans a sermon. I don't see myself committing to his lifestyle, but Beau's two day 'hike' to work is one way to add value to the places we visit I suppose.
Sleeping on the Wing
Somewhere under Chandrashila, the Moonrock
Somewhere in between a three day hike over a ridgeline in the distance you see where you want to reach. But it is not a destination anymore. It is a point to take flight from. The colours and contrast sharpen your sight, but it is not the world you are seeing. The eyes are in a dream. It is a place you want to your mind to reach not these tired feet. You think of a poem, you hum a song and you stop still.
Fear drops away too, like the cement, and you
are over the Atlantic. Where is Spain? where is
who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves,
was it? A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity
and your position in respect to human love. But
here is where the gods are, speculating, bemused.
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for!
- Sleeping on the Wing, Frank o Hara
What are the names to keep an eye out for great travel writing? Who doesn't preach or make themselves the story of the place? The generation before ours was defined by the opening throes of American and European voices finding the second hand world of ours - Naipaul, Theroux, (Iyer?).
What makes for a great travel piece for you now? What places in our sinking drowning world would be left to write of?
An Interview about Bombay Daak
In a completely unexpected turn to the track of this letter, here’s a little interview that I did last night with Aradhita Saraf of Weloquent.
Let me leave you with that tonight. We’ll talk a little more about it in the next edition.