Have Bucket Lists Destroyed the Art of Travel?
Travel: To go from one place to another, typically over a distance of some length.
Journey: Originally a literal unit of time and travel, has become a metaphor for the experience of living life with all its ups and downs.
I recently read the Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas and it reminded me that so much of travel now, thanks to enhanced modes of transport is about the destination, not the journey. In this, the couple depart for destinations knowing that it will be weeks before they arrive, they travel on horse-back or on foot or cart, accept the kindness of strangers and form lasting friendships along the way. It is easy to romanticise it I know, I am certain journeys like this were not without brutal hardships, but it was the journey that was the interesting part for them, where discoveries were made, before the hardships of their posting became a harsh reality. Another book also triggered such thoughts which was The British in India by David Gilmour where more fun and lasting friendships were formed on the voyage to India than once many had arrived in this brutal, unknown land, where people more often than not ended up in remote locations with no other people around for company. Often times the loneliness of this life is overlooked but it must have made the memories of the voyage ever more poignant.
Of course, both of these books were set in/written about a different time. But it got me thinking, has the bucket list taken the joy out of the journey and the spontaneity out of travel? I look at ‘influencers’ many in their 20’s and 30’s who claim to have visited 100+ countries and this they feel that this is something to be proud of, as if it somehow makes them travel experts. But on fleeting visits, grabbing that oh so instagrammable pic in that oh so famous location where everyone else has had their picture taken before dashing off to the next photo shoot, how much can one learn about the destination, how much of its culture can be absorbed and more importantly, how do the locals actually benefit? I worry that bucket list travel has ensured that clients are so focused on destinations, that they miss the entire journey, the people, the culture, the experience, the tough bits, all of which conspire to create the magic.
One downside of bucket list travel that has been written about relatively recently, is the over-tourism that this has caused. People have FOMO, the bucket list has become the consumerism of the holiday world instead of must have, it is must see, in the case of influencers, must be seen at. And yet, there are so many destinations that I visited 20, 15, even 10 years ago that were stunning, and virtually undiscovered, head there now and the reality is that are nothing short of horrific, with thousands of people queuing, guides with megaphones and touts in their hundreds. Just what does this achieve? Frustration, disappointment and wasted money. I was chatting to a young guide I was traveling with in Nepal recently, a truly visionary and inspirational chap who really brought me up short. He mentioned the pictures of Everest with the queues of people waiting to summit, and told me, ‘Anyone can climb or be carried up Everest these days, it is nothing special anymore, but even worse than that is that this is the rooftop of the world and no one shows it any respect.’
I have been in the business of travel for three decades now and know that so much of it is managing expectations. This is so hard to do when bucket list destinations have become disrespected, over-run and the experience is spoiled. But also, in the rush to complete the bucket list destinations, have we forgotten to respect ourselves whilst travelling? Have we sold our actual personalities out to a list of what we’ve been commandeered into thinking is what we should see?
There are also so many more travel companies now out there claiming to be tailor-made specialists and yet how can they be when so many of them cater to the same people with the same requests? I don’t believe that a tailor-made travel company can truly be specialists if all they are doing is offering the same as everyone else. This is one of the reasons I set up Indian Experiences, to work with DMC’s and tour operators who saw the kind of non-mainstream travel I was doing and wanted something different and to offer a much broader range of experiences and destinations to their clients.
When I was a tour operator, I had a strategy. The client would call and ask for a standard set of destinations to be seen within a certain amount of time and I would listen patiently and then ask one question, one simple word, why?
Why do you want to visit XYZ? I can tell you that 9/10 they were stumped and could come up with no reason other than they’d heard of it, a friend had been, that’s what they thought they should see, yes, it was on everyone’s bucket list!
I’d probe further, where did you travel to last year, the year before, what did you like most about it, what didn’t you like about it? What do you like to do on a holiday, what are your interests, hobbies, what would you do if you could go away next weekend? In short, you befriend them, find out about that person, discuss, gain their trust and give suggestions that they will not otherwise have known about.
Okay, so you love walking, so why not…..
You like horse riding, do you know about the Marwari breed?
You’re foodies, well then, you must visit…….
He’s into wildlife and your into spa, well how about
And all of a sudden, you have something to work with to ensure that they are visiting the destination to experience something that will be more meaningful to them, rather than queuing up at a bunch of monuments just because they think they should. I’m not saying totally talk them out of mainstream destinations, or cut out all the monuments, but let’s face it, do you need to see every city palace or fort in Rajasthan? Handpick the best and then weave in other experiences that will make the journey more meaningful and memorable to them.
Ahh, there we are, I knew I’d fly off into a rant but that word journey has reined me in. Three key words that are also vital: SLOW | IT| DOWN. Take your time. You may not see as much, but you’ll discover a whole lot more. Also stop to think about how you travel and how you get from A-B, because for me A — B are the start and end, it’s the bit in the middle that’s the real journey.
I have extreme samples of how people have overcome bucket list dilemma, and yes, I appreciate that these won’t appeal to many of you, what I am trying to point out is that it is possible to find your own WHY, find the right specialist and create a trip accordingly.
I will give just two examples of when asking “Why?” And ‘What are your interests?” has, in the past, enabled me to transform a standard package into a truly tailored tour.
The first, let’s call them Mr & Mrs Smith for the sake of argument, was a request for a visit to Shimla purely for the toy train ride, Agra (of course) and then a journey around Rajasthan’s main destinations, they were not sure why, they just wanted to see the sights. After a good chat for at least an hour (I never said it wasn’t time consuming) it transpired that Mr Smith was into horse racing, actually had 6 of his own horses, which got me thinking, why not spend a day at the races in Calcutta? I could pull a few strings, get him to meet some of the owners and trainers and have a proper show around. It could have been a bus man’s holiday, but he was delighted. His wife was into art, and so we threw in Lunch with Bomti, a local resident, socialite and art dealer, as well as a couple of art galleries. Calcutta in itself is fascinating so it’s not too hard to impress. Of course, then the toy train ride then became the one to Darjeeling and few days at Glenburn (what’s not to love?) and then followed Rajasthan and Agra. Was it the most logical routing? No, of course not, but this didn’t bother them one iota because they were actually doing a trip that was uniquely tailored around them. And yes, I did add in Mihirgarh so that he could learn a little about Marwari horses too. It all gave them additional kudos at their next dinner party too, “Oh, you just did XYZ, well we met so and so and went to…’’
The second, Mr & Mrs Jones, had just 8 days and wanted to see the Golden Triangle. In the course of our conversation it transpired that they were actually heading to Nepal to trek up to Everest Base Camp. Mr Jones was an anthropologist, Mrs Jones an amateur photographer, they both quite liked wildlife. I asked them if they were really bothered about the Taj Mahal (as I would) and they didn’t seem overly enamoured. It was then decided that I would send them two options, one a Delhi, Agra, Jaipur tour with added extras, a half day trek in Jaipur, a photo tour of Old Delhi, that kind of thing and a couple of nights in between, Ranthambhore or more ideally Ramathra, and then one itinerary where my imagination could get involved. This was a Jodhpur (see the fort but then head off to a private camp in the middle of the Thar Desert and visit the more remote villages and tribes that one rarely gets to see), Kumbalgarh with the trek through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, a romantic step well dinner and of course the Ranakpur Temples. Then onto Jawai for the chance to see the Rabari tribals as well as a couple of obliging leopards (hopefully) and ending with a trek from there to Udaipur. They were sold on option 2, all of a sudden, they didn’t care about the Taj, they had been given an option that appealed to their senses and sensibilities and booked it by return mail. They then went on to recommend us to a several other couples.
Of course, the above two itineraries featured set destinations and were meticulously planned. But getting back onto the theme of more journey-based travel:
I have client, a tour operator from Canada, who takes people cycling every year from Jodhpur to Udaipur over 7 days, most drive this in 6 hours. None of them knows exactly what the route is or where they will be staying, they find that out on arrival at the end of each day, and at the end of each day, they have a wonderful surprise, a stay in a wonderful, offbeat destination. On the way, they stop at local markets, drink chai with chaiwalas, in short, meet and interact with local people. They have had all sorts of unexpected experiences and it’s not unheard of to end up as unwitting guests at weddings!
Another company we work with, Horse India, do something similar but, as the name would suggest, on horseback. The ins and outs of the itinerary for their clients are not important, it is the overall journey and experience that they are coming for. As the owner says, ‘We are the most sustainable company out there, we use non-motorised transport, stop in local villages for lunch and fertilise the land as we go!’ And you can’t argue with that.
One other idea is to use train travel more (tricky in times of corona virus granted) but I’ve always thought a fun itinerary would to take the Shatabdi Train from Delhi to MP stopping off as you go. The train leaves Delhi and arrives in Agra 2 hours later. Next, board the train in Agra and head to Gwalior, board the train again in Gwalior and head to Jhansi, to visit Orchha from Jhansi, head to Bhopal — all by fun short train journeys. Train journeys in short bursts like this are great fun, a great way to meet people and experience local culture and, as one of my motos says, ‘Monuments create the backdrop, but people create the experiences.’
Another company, Holidays in Rural India, actively encourage train journeys and give clients a credit for an additional experience if they take them (again pre covid). However, they also organise fabulous cycling trips through the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh in aid of Frank Water, so those are a win, win, win.
I do appreciate that time is a factor, people generally speaking like to plan and know what they are getting, but I’d love to start seeing a surge in slower travel, allowing for surprises and seeing just where the journey takes you. Personally, I never plan my own travel and tend to adlib. I went to Moscow 2 years ago and my friends had meticulously planned every detail, I paid zero attention to the plans, I was traveling with friends and we would have a good time, I was happy to see what happened when we got there. As it turned out, the weather was so horrendous, we only managed to do two things on the planned itinerary and had to adlib the rest. They were so disappointed, I wasn’t, I didn’t know any better and still had a great time.
However, I do have one friend who I admire a lot. He flew to Sri Lanka, got off the plane and started walking. There was no plan, he had three months and he figured he would just walk across the island. He met locals, was invited to stay with them and had an incredible journey, he didn’t focus on the monuments or main sights but went where the journey took him. How incredible!
This has inspired me, for years now I’ve been planning a drive, circumnavigating India. So many people have pointed out the route I should take and how long it should take me. For me, I want to start and just see where the journey takes me and for that, I need time and money, so any possible sponsors out there, I’d love to hear from you!
However, at the end of the day, I have my (fairly strong) opinions but is there really a right and a wrong? Just remember, whatever your way of traveling, whether that be on a bucket list or on an unknown journey:
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure.
My book, Escape to India, is available at Darling Reads of Horbury and on Amazon.com/.co.in/co.uk