While I was growing up, my family would always try to ensure that we take one holiday per year. My parents would meticulously plan out an itinerary, book train tickets, make sure our bags are packed, and we would head out for a week, around October (Because my parents wanted to leave Kolkata during Durga Puja, when the city would be literally bursting at its seams). I didn’t mind missing out on the festivities because I knew that there was something more exciting ahead.
As soon as we would reach our destination, we would start ticking off items in our itinerary. After that, we would happily return home. On coming back, we would get our two rolls of film developed (the times before phone cameras took over our lives) and distribute whatever gifts we had brought for close friends and family. This was the annual tradition and I never thought twice about it.
Once I grew up, I started experimenting with this set format, bit by bit. Occasionally, I would go on holidays with my friends, which were more impulsive, less planned out, and without an itinerary to stick to. However, some things were still common. We would still visit the popular areas of the place and do things that we had heard about from other tourists.
All of this changed on 18th May 2018 when we landed in Ladakh for India Fellow’s Travel Workshop. We stayed there for 10 days and even after coming back to Delhi, I remember being contemplative for a couple of days. While speaking to a colleague, I said that it was ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience.
But, why? I think this was the first time in my life when I could confidently say that I have seen a place. I didn’t just exist there for a few days, but truly lived there. We interacted with the people and went to local markets (not just tourist markets). After spending a couple of days, when someone gave me directions like, “Yes, our office is near Moti Market, towards the old bus stop, next to the post office”, I actually understood what that meant.
The travel workshop is unique because it allowed all of us to come face to face with a region, its people, the culture, food, local challenges and its innovative solutions in a way which is rarely possible unless one stays somewhere for a while. Through the 10 days of our workshop, we used a tool called Design Thinking. The tool is such that you are compelled to take humanity of other people into account. The approach provide solutions for and with people in an iterative manner, such that their feedback is always considered.
From this workshop, I take back something different and unlike any other training. It made me want to re-learn how to visit new places, how to interact with an unknown and unfamiliar place. Recently, I was reading Atul Gawande’s commencement address to medical graduates in UCLA where he speaks eloquently about the importance of curiosity in our lives. He says,
“Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care to people…To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.”
Being genuinely curious about the place you visit, or even the place you live in, is so essential. I realize that for most part of our lives, we simply exist while living is completely different. It is to know people, and their lives. Actually, it would no longer be ‘their’ lives only. There would be no ‘I‘ and ‘them’. We have divide the world into meaningless categories of you and we, often not realizing that these divisions are so counterproductive to what we seek to achieve.