“I don’t think you can backpack in that condition,” Nitesh, my seasoned backpacker friend warned me. He was right. I was overweight and lacked even the basic stamina to climb a flight of stairs, let alone sustain a multi-day trip with a loaded backpack in the mountains. In no uncertain terms, he reminded me that if I wanted to travel with him and enjoy the trip, I had to lose some weight. I still had six months to confirm my companionship. I did not want to miss the opportunity to learn the art of backpacking from him and committed myself to getting fitter.
Fast-forward seven years and I already have a number of backpacking trips under my ever-tightening belt. Each of those trips provided me the opportunity to know a bit more about the world that we have inherited, a bit more about the people that have shaped it, and a bit more about myself.
Backpacking makes the traveller comfortable with uncertainty. The probability of encountering a problem is directly proportional to the amount of planning, which in turn might be dependent on the risk one is willing to take. Needless to say, backpacking has definitely instilled a problem solving mindset in me while whipping up my risk appetite. Personally, I do not plan the route or the time I would spend at a given location. Instead, I fix the entry and exit points, their corresponding dates, and a general idea of the direction of the travel. There were times where I had to plot out multiple options—just like chess players—and my next move was dependent on what opportunities did or did not materialise. While I have missed a number of must-see places, not experienced many must-dos, and had to forego some of the must-eats, I had the privilege of exploring places and experiencing things that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I recount this one time when I decided to extend my stay at a place in order to hike to a famous temple amidst snowfall. While such a trip was against common advice, the locals who were much more adept gave me some pointers. I was treated to a warm welcome, a dip in a nearby hot spring, a spicy meal, and many stories by the priest. Then there were times where I had to give in to an unpleasant situation and ask myself the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” While I wouldn’t say that sleeping in the waiting room of a railway station was the most comfortable way to spend a winter night, my trusty sleeping bag helped me with some sense of security (not once, but twice). As long as I am aware of my risk tolerance and have the preparation to mitigate any acceptable risk, it is alright.
There is one change I have observed in myself over the years—I have become more comfortable around strangers. For a shy, introverted person like me, this was a significant personal growth. There is no way to backpack without asking for help from strangers. In fact, the lending hand must be extended both ways. A couple of years ago, I crossed paths with a fellow backpacker, Subhajit (who remains a good friend to this day). He gave me the advice, “Always have something that you can offer to someone else.” I have taken it to heart. Nowadays, I always carry medicine, water, chocolates, and whiskey in my backpack. Kindness is almost always reciprocated. There was one time when a backpacker called Gowri Shankar ripped his trousers while we were on a hike and I gave him a spare one. In turn, he helped me discover a particular area of North-East that I wouldn’t have otherwise visited. There was another time when a local showed me around on his motorbike and then treated me to lunch in his village just because I helped him out with some petrol. And I have lost count of the number of times I was able to have a conversation with a kid just because I had offered them chocolates. Backpacking opens up the possibility of meeting interesting strangers. Over the last seven years, I have met artists in search of inspiration, entrepreneurs shaping up their next idea, professionals on a sabbatical, and people who have dedicated their lives to selfless causes.
It is possible to pursue certain other hobbies while travelling. Some people enjoy the mode of travelling itself—like hikers, cyclists, motorbikers, and car-drivers. I have myself undertaken trips that were focused on hiking or cycling. Ever since Nitesh introduced me to backpacking, I made it a point to document all my trips on my weblog. This meant that I had the opportunity to work on my writing and photography skills. I have met travellers who were into niche hobbies as well—avid birders who waited patiently to take a snap and record audio, cartography enthusiasts who documented trails, and artists who whipped out a pencil and did a field sketch faster than a photographer could set his tripod up. Over the last couple of years I have met quite a few videographers, too. In essence these are modes of documenting the environment—the lives and the times of these places and the people who inhabit them—not unlike the travellers of the past whose footsteps are engraved on stone, printed on paper, or etched on a photographic plate.
Over the years I have realised that backpacking is not for everyone, especially if it is solo. For some, the primary reason for travelling would be to relax in the company of their friends and family. It would be unwise to take up the trials and tribulations associated with backpacking. Even then, they can benefit from the thought process of a backpacker just as a backpacker would not pass up an opportunity to relax in the serenity of the surroundings, sharing a beverage with an erstwhile stranger. Every traveller must find what travel means to them; but if there is any universal directive, it would be to enjoy the journey. It was Gowri Shankar who once said to me, “The discovery of self should be done at one age or the other. Traveling quickens that process, even more if you are doing it solo.”
Note: This article was published in Arise (Airbus India Toastmasters Club Newsletter), Issue 2, January-June 2021.