The best way to experience a place is by belonging there. Deep and Free.
What’s the difference between Goa and Kochi, Ooty and Manali, Madurai and Haridwar? If you don’t pick a long paper and start writing a huge list of differences, chances are that you have been wasting your tickets and leave days. You could have as well floated above a place in a helicopter and swung back home. Better still, you could have plopped yourself into a deep sofa and watched the place on TV.
Because, there’s no way a superficial whirl would slide with a real traveler when it comes to experiencing a place. It has to be knee deep, and at times, even neck deep. Those who think that experiencing a place by dipping a toe or two is enough have never tried jumping in with full abandon.
But how do you start? Where do you start?
It’s not as twisted and surreal as some travel bloggers make it sound. It’s all about letting yourself ‘in’. Here’s how you can try it out next time:
Do not tap your smartphone map for the nearest burger joint, or Pizza Chain place, or the food from your side of the earth. Stop wherever, whenever you are hungry and look around. Any place which looks like it would not have rats should be good to roll into.
Ask your guide for some local cuisine restaurant but underline the request by asking to steer clear of the famous spots. Those are the ones everyone would visit. What about the snack that locals eat during tea hours? What is that thing that the guy in a street fries in the evening? What cart gets people flocking when they are peckish after office? You would never know Bihar if you do not try the real street Litti-Chokha from the alleys.
A Himachali Siddu or Aloo-Palda would only be smelt in a thali that someone is serving at a local home. The Puttu you get at a Keralite’s house at the breakfast table would never compare with a chef preparation. So get a little courageous and break your perceived boundaries about what you like to eat and what you don’t. If you think you have your all-time-favourite food figured out already, well, what if you still haven’t tasted it?
So how do you get to eat what they eat? Simple, check yourself out from a regular hotel and park yourself at an apartment available on rent. Many locals lease out rooms on a day basis for tourists. Then there are apps like Airbnb. There is ample chance for you to discover local breakfast, lunch, dinner items as well as rituals and mores by staying with them, waking up around them and chatting while you peel some garlic pods with the aunty. No hotel will serve you the quintessentially-local pickle that the grandma makes. So say bye to electric tea kettles – at least for a day or two during the trip.
Or if that sounds too much of an exercise, hail a rickshaw, experiment with daily bus/train rather than crawling into an AC cab or tour bus. Unless you feel the ground with your feet or the air with your hair, you won’t be able to enjoy the place as it actually is. Smells, sights, slices of everyday life can only be picked when you are at ease and dipping your mind well in the surroundings. Of course, you have to be alert for safety etc. but there is no rule that says that if you can afford to roam in a taxi, that’s the only mode of transport you should pick.
Of that huge, noisy, self-enclosed group and the guide-book. Let your own instincts and individual companionship steer you. There is so much that you can discover while walking with no agenda and by engaging in random encounters or stop-overs. The leash of a rigid itinerary often stops many people from carrying back their own stories and perspectives of a place.
Everyone can bring back a done-to-death photograph at the most popular spots from a town. What about something unique and singular that you picked up? What about immersing yourself in their culture, singing their songs, watching their movie stars, hanging out at their coffee-addas and reading their folklore?
Everyone can be a tourist. Are you everyone?