Living in Delhi is an outstanding reason to travel as much as possible. Sadly, it’s been six months since I went anywhere, so in the meantime I’m making do with reading A Year in the World, in which Frances Mayes swans about the Mediterranean and the British Isles, consuming mind-boggling quantities of vintage alcohol and smelly little cheeses as if nobody told her how much money all this is going to cost. Of course, she’s a well-known travel writer, so it’s quite possible that she did it for very little, or none, of her own money.
A vacation on someone else’s money! Most people consider this to be a contemptible idea. Other people think it’s the cleverest thing since sliced bread; and these are the people who risk the hatred and jealousy of their friends, family and random strangers, to be travel writers. They willingly pledge to listen to the words, ‘Travel writing—how glamorous!’ and to know, to the end of their days, that they always meant, ‘Why don’t you get a real job, you freeloader.’
However, contempt directed at a travel writer is really just a case of shooting the messenger. Many staff writers would genuinely love to be sent off on their magazine’s own budget in resplendent editorial independence, but are briskly told to put a sock in it by the company’s finance directors, who much prefer to be hosted by airlines, hotels and tourism boards. Writers would certainly down tools and march off in an idealistic huff, if they weren’t so busy appreciating the twisted brilliance of being duty-bound to undertake the hosted trips set up for them by the selfless marketing chaps. Back when I worked with a travel magazine, doing a story on the magazine budget meant heaving one’s sweaty self by train in the midsummer sun to climb up into the fort at Gwalior, while graciously accepting an invitation meant being wafted to the Seychelles in a business class seat. Gwalior is a very nice place indeed, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist.
For the travel writer, squalid complicity in the tourism business is balanced with straight-up enjoyment of the job, seasoned with the certain knowledge that, try as other people might to sound indifferent, most will end up reeling in a mist of insane jealousy. The more sadistic travel writer will not be able to resist poking at the wound, parrying the ‘How glamorous!’ comment, with something finely calibrated to hurt, like ‘Well, it’s also hard work, you know. It’s a loooong flight to the Intercontinental Resort and Thalasso Spa on Bora Bora, the pearl of French Polynesia; and business class just isn’t what it used to be.’
Still, I’d say (though nobody will believe me now) that some of the most interesting journeys, in my brief career as travel writer, were the decidedly non-luxurious kind. Top experiences include driving the entire length of the Grand Trunk Road, from Kolkata to the Wagah Border, at the price of having my hands freeze into steering wheel-clutching claws; watching dawn break from a hot air balloon at 8,000 feet over Dewas, MP, at the cost of sleeping in the worst guesthouse in the whole entire world, bar none; and eating as much wazawan food as I could stuff into my body, and then waddling around sufi shrines, in Kashmir, at the cost of my digestive tract. And so many, many more.
Besides, I now know that the worst bathroom in the whole world is at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Leh, Ladakh. And that’s the kind of discovery that makes travel so exciting.