Travelling today is about the experience
The new traveller isn’t interested only in seeing. She or he wants to make travel an experience of some sort, so outside exploration also turns into an inward journey. Here's more about Gen Next's expeditions all across...india Updated: Aug 24, 2011 13:50 IST
As you read this, Mahek Shahani, a partner at the handbag label Princesse K, is probably running around like a maniac, packing for her long-held dream: a trip to Argentina and Peru.
The 25-year-old Mumbaikar will leave in a few days to put a Latin-American spin on the Spanish she’s been learning in Mumbai, and also to twirl and twist, Buenos Aires street-style, in less formal versions of the Latin ballroom dances she’s also been learning. Because for Shahani, Argentina means more than just a holiday. It’s meant to be a learning experience too – literally.
"Peru will be more of a backpacking holiday, but in Argentina, I’ve signed up for classes in Spanish – I want to learn a new aspect of the language – and classes in social dancing," says Shahani, bubbling over with excitement. "The tango originated in Argentina; I want to dance it the way they do. So I’m also staying at a tango-themed hotel. Aside from the décor, it also organises classes and workshops."
Like Shahani, all across the country, a new kind of traveller is emerging. This person is usually in his 20s or early 30s; she usually thinks of travel as more about doing and participating than merely seeing; he is usually curious about other cultures and ways of living; she usually wants to take herself out of her comfort zone and see what else she can find out about herself; he knows what he’s interested in and looking for and goes all out to focus on that on his travels; she would commit suicide if you called her a tourist and not a traveller – that’s after killing you first.
We’ve said ‘usually’ a lot in the paragraph above. That’s because it’s impossible to generalise and say that everyone thinks of travel like this these days. But enough people (usually committed travellers themselves) have noticed that travel seems to have acquired a new dimension in the last few years, and these people have responded by putting their money, effort and time where their beliefs are.
So in the last few years, a huge variety of small travel companies have come up, catering to the new traveller. Which means that, these days, you could take off to the Himalayas not only to trek, raft or mountain climb, but also to star gaze, accompanied by someone who’ll make the skies meaningful for you. Or you could whizz into the jungles not only to track big cats, but also to watch swarms of fireflies dance. Or… anything. You could do on your holiday anything you desire, whether you’re travelling alone, travelling with friends, or travelling with family, whether you’ve got money to burn or you’re more broke than a mirror that’s fallen off the wall.
The key word, however, is ‘do’. Because the new traveller isn’t interested only in seeing. She or he wants to make travel an experience of some sort, so outside exploration also turns into an inward journey.
"As a kid, I only went on package holidays with my parents," says 26-year-old Smriti Ahuja who works on social projects and is a co-founder of Absent With/out Leave (AWOL), a venture that encourages young people to travel across the country, living only on Rs 1,000 a week – inclusive of everything. "Even now, my parents prefer that kind of holiday. But I get no sense of place from a package tour, so I began to travel on my own."
Ahuja has backpacked in India and abroad, and prefers to go places with minimal planning – she’d rather just arrive somewhere and take things from there. It’s a great way to really get to know a place, she says, because you have to find your own way around and so you notice everything.
That’s the thinking behind AWOL, which she set up together with 25-year-old social entrepreneur Keith Menon, also a relentless traveller who likes to take off around the country, living on as little as possible to experience a way of life that is out of the ordinary for the middle class.
AWOL is not a travel company. In fact, it’s another of Menon’s social concerns (Menon is also a co-founder of the eco-awareness campaign, Batti Bandh). Low budget travel, they believe, can be therapeutic, and so every month, AWOL plans to equip two young travellers suffering from quarterlife crises with R1,000 a week, a laptop and Internet connection and a mobile phone, so they can take off for three months, explore any part of the country they like and blog about it as they go.
"Living on a small budget really takes you to another place," says Menon. "You have to get out of yourself and ask other people for help – ask for lifts, ask for a place to stay, ask for advice. You have to survive with what you’ve got, and if you’ve spent all you’ve got already, then you have to get by somehow. If you manage to get by, then you know something more about yourself than you probably did when you set off."
Knowing something about yourself is precisely what drives 25-year-old Akshai Narian, a former corporate executive who now works with the Teach for India foundation in Delhi, to travel. In fact, it was all his introspective travel – including volunteering at the Osho Ashram in Pune rather than signing up for a ‘work as meditation’ course, and staying at Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, that inspired Narain to give up the corporate life and seek another way of living.
"Like most people, I travelled as a child with my parents who were complete opposites in what they wanted from a holiday," says Narain. "On our vacations my mother would insist on going to all the tourist spots and my father would say, ‘we’re here to relax’ and not want to move out of the hotel. Over time, I realised that neither of these extremes suited me. If I’m going out, it’s because I want to know about the place I’m in. I should experience the place in a way that makes me understand myself. And that’s how I started my kind of travel."
In his first year of college, Narian revisited a small hill town he’d earlier gone to with his parents. He went alone and stayed for 10 days. "I just roamed around and let things soak in," he says. "It was the first time I was really on my own, and I learned about the real world. Wandering around an unfamiliar environment, I also understood my own familiar environment, things about my life that I hadn’t valued earlier. It made me go back home with a greater sense of belonging."
Party, party, party
Travel however, is as much about personality as anything else is, and so the low-budget life isn’t attractive to everyone. Certainly not to Sohil Modi, owner of a textiles business, who usually travels abroad and enjoys adventure sports, but who was intrigued enough by the premise of the brand new travel company, Trips Gone Crazy, to sign up with his fiancée and two other couples for a party holiday.
"It seems interesting to go on a holiday that’s not about regular sightseeing, but about nightlife and clubbing," says Modi. "We’ll be going to Barcelona and Ibiza. In Barcelona, people usually go and see the famous church, but that’s not why we’ll be there."
Trips Gone Crazy was co-founded by young Mumbai-based businessmen Akhilesh Lakhotia and Chirag Khandelwal, both of whom went to college in the UK and were very taken by a nightlife scene that included vacations to places like Ibiza only for the clubbing.
"Youngsters in the West usually have a party holiday once a year, and we saw a big market for that in India," says Khandelwal. Adds Lakhotia, "The concept of clubbing is opening up here – lots of international DJs perform in India, there are festivals like Sunburn and performances at live music places like Blue Frog. People are very aware of world music, and know who the best DJs are. So why not go to a place like Ibiza, where the world’s best DJs play at massive clubs which are the best in the world?"
Trips Gone Crazy’s first trip is taking off next week to Ibiza. On the cards are other trips, such as to Munich for the Oktoberfest followed by clubbing in Berlin. "Though we don’t specify any age group, we expect that 90 per cent of the people who will sign up for our trips will be aged between 21 and 35," says Khandelwal. Adds Lakhotia: "These days people are looking for different things when they travel. We have spending power in India now, and so people are looking at party trips, bachelor trips and all kinds of trips."
This attitude to travel couldn’t have come about if it weren’t for the Internet, says Keith Menon of AWOL. "Everything is on Google these days," he says. "There are very few areas you can’t find out anything about, and that opens up travel for everyone."
The Internet is how Mahek Shahani put together her tango trip to Argentina and Peru. And the Internet is what makes 33-year-old Jigmar Parmar, who works in real estate, really happy when he’s planning holidays with his wife and baby daughter. "I do a lot of online research when I plan our trips, on the place, things to do, restaurants and so on, and I have to say, I love the research almost as much as I love the actual travel," he says somewhat sheepishly.
"Travel for us is more than just see, see, shop. I want to experience the culture, the food, wine, people," he says. "I’m also a certified scuba diver and love adventure sports, so I make it a point to do one crazy thing every time I travel. It’s all about pushing myself to the limit. And then, when I’m tired, to relax with an excellent meal with local wine, in a place that’s all about local flavour."
Curiosity is what motivates Parmar to travel – there’s a big world out there and he wants to see as much of it as he can. And it’s people just like Parmar – experimental travellers – who motivated 20-something travel enthusiasts Manjari Verma, a former advertising professional, and Avani Patel, a former marine biologist, to stop dreaming about it and actually set up their own travel company – Broken Compass, a company that customises travel for you, exactly the way you want it, wherever you want to do it, whatever your budget.
"Both of us often planned holidays for family and friends, and we’d get really irritated to see people go off to the typical places and do typical things," says Verma. Adds Patel: "And when we’d come back with our trips with photos and experiences, the same people would say, but how? How have you come back with this?"
How Patel and Verma ‘came back with this’ is a combination of openmindedness and research. "There’s keenness and curiosity about travel, but a great lack of knowledge," says Verma. "Sometimes people ask us to organise a trip to the US or Switzerland, and then when we tell them what else they could do, there is keenness. People are open to experimenting with holidays now."
And that’s where the Internet comes in again, says Patel. When people like the Broken Compass duo post photos and write blogs about their travels, they attract people who had no idea that they could also travel like that. This creates interest, so more people travel, and more people share their experiences on the Internet, which gets other people interested in travel and so on.
And here’s the interesting thing. Sharing experiences on the Net has led to another kind of holiday option altogether – travel for the purpose of photography. And professional photographers have spotted this as a good opportunity – you can lead a group of amateurs keen on photography on a tour of a scenic place, mentor them along the way – and get to travel yourself.
That’s what 24-year-old film school graduate and professional photographer Parthiva Nag has done with his travel company, Trips to Click. "I’ve always loved travelling, ever since I can remember, so I put two and two together and came up with Trips to Click," he says. "Most people take pictures when they travel and like to post them on the Net, so even as a hobby, they want to take good pictures. Ten years ago, something like Trips to Click couldn’t have existed – there was no platform to share pictures with friends. But today, photography is a great motivator for travel."
Of course, not everything is about sharing. Akshai Narain doesn’t travel to blog or tweet, he travels because he loves to. Mumbai-based HR professional and filmmaking aspirant Anand Sirwani so loves the idea of knowing the world and everything around him that he takes off whenever he can, on one occasion even motorcycling to Ahmedabad in a day. "And when I can’t, I buy the R25 all-access bus pass in Mumbai and explore the city," he grins.
And that’s Sirwani’s point. For the new traveller, travel is about exploring. It could be about trying to see something already familiar to you – such as the city you live in – from a different perspective. Or it could be plain old-fashioned exploring. Just curiosity to see where this road you’ve never been on could lead you, says Harshit Merchant, co-founder of Exoterra which organises driving holidays in your own car, complete with everything, including tents for camping out at places where no hotels are available.
This is not only for business, but because Merchant loves driving and exploring. "India really has tremendous stuff," he says. "But you don’t see it till you get off the highways, take the bad roads and go through villages. People want to go to Goa, but if you want a beach holiday, I can tell you of beaches so secluded, you could go skinny-dipping."
If travel is all about the experience, how is an ‘experience’ defined? Here’s what Merchant has to say: "If you were interested in visiting Leh, Ladakh, you could fly there. You could stay at the same hotel as I will, you could rent a car and drive on the same roads that I do. But if I went to Leh, I’d drive there, from Delhi or Chandigarh. When you enter Ladakh by road, you see things you’d never have seen from the air. You experience the journey as well as the destination."
And you remember it, all of it. That’s an ‘experience’. That’s what the new travellers are after.
Exoterra leisure drives
Set up by Harshit and Anjani Merchant, Exoterra organises driving holidays through some of the country’s most gorgeous places. It’s group travel, but you go in your own car in a loose convoy, and the company organises everything from accommodation when there’s nothing suitable on the road, to snacks while driving and breakdown services
Having planned holidays for friends and family for years, travel enthusiasts Manjari Verma and Avani Patel finally quit their day jobs and set up Broken Compass that customises travel for you based on your travel profile (gauged from a questionnaire they ask you to fill), your budget and your time, wherever you want to go and whatever you want to do
Trips to click
More and more people are taking up photography as a hobby because they can show off their pictures on social networking sites. Professional photographer Parthiva Nag saw the opportunity and set up Trips to Click which organises photography group tours to places like Ladakh and Pushkar, where Nag shows the group how to take great pictures
Absent with/out leave
This is not a travel company, more of a social concern, set up by Keith Menon and Smriti Ahuja to help people aged between 21 and 28 get through their quarterlife crises. Absent With/out Leave sorts through applications from youngsters, and every month, selects two people to take off on three-month trips within the country, living only on Rs 1,000 a week
Trips gone crazy
It’s all about partying and nightlife for this brand new travel company set up by Akhilesh Lakhotia and Chirag Khandelwal. Trips Gone Crazy organises group trips to places known for nightclubs, such as Ibiza and Berlin, and also takes in festivals like Germany’s Oktoberfest
From HT Brunch, August 21
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch
First Published: Aug 20, 2011 13:58 IST