The 10 moments that helped CNT editor Divia Thani realise the magic of travel.
Coming to America
Where are the skyscrapers? I am 17 and heading to the US for an undergraduate degree. After a heart-stopping 20-minute phone call (these were the days international calls cost a dollar a minute), a dean of admissions confirmed that the University of Pittsburgh would offer me a scholarship at its branch campus in Bradford, Pennsylvania. These were pre-Google days; we didn’t even own a computer. But I knew Pennsylvania was right under New York on a map. I said yes right away. Little did I know that Bradford was a small, mostly-white town of about 10,000 people, and New York City was a seven-hour drive away. I remember seeing nothing but trees on the plane ride to Bradford. My only exposure to America had been Manhattan, and I had little reason to think that all of the US did not look shiny and imposing. Instead, I landed at an airport the size of my home; no immigration counters, porters, or food stalls. And, I discovered, lugging two massive suitcases off a tiny belt, no taxis. “Bradford has one cab driver,” a kind local explained. “And it’s Sunday, so it’s Bob’s day off.” I knew, at that moment, that this experience was going to be foreign in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
Out of Africa
I’m five, my sister is 12—and she’s the naughty one. We aren’t allowed to eat beef. But we are far away from home, in our second home, where our father lives, in Lagos, Nigeria. We are expat kids here: we don’t know the locals, we hang out with other Indians living between Africa and London, we spend our days swimming at the Ikoyi Club. On the grounds far past the pool, under a large canopy, Didi and I have a secret. There is a hot barbecue pit, where shirtless men stand grilling skewers of beef smeared in spicy suya powder. When done, the meat is slightly charred, it burns the tongue, it’s juicy—but the flavour, oh the flavour. All these years later, I can still taste it on my lips if I try. So spicy, it tingles, yet sweet. So distinctive, I have never eaten anything similar enough to liken it to. The skewers cost 10 nairas. My sister figures out how to pay; we cannot allow our mother to find out. It feels wrong, but it is too tasty to resist. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many, many times I would go great distances for delicious food.
An Italian connection
In Florence, I see a woman on the street selling little works of her art. The canvases are painted with part-fairies and part-mermaids in pastel colours with flowing hair and long eyelashes, a dusting of glitter on their wings and tails. I am 23 and my life seems wide open to all possibilities. I have many dreams to fulfil. I want to buy this art, but my companion deems it too silly to bother with; it is not serious art. I don’t argue. I don’t walk up to the woman and buy them anyway. I don’t even compliment her. We move on. Something about that moment stayed with me. Something about that art stayed with me. It would never have won an award or been hung in a museum, but it captured my spirit at that time. On every subsequent trip to Florence, I look for it. I have learnt since then to buy art that moves me, to trust my instincts when it comes to relationships, to follow my heart and use my voice when it comes to chasing my dreams, regardless of what people might say. When I close my eyes, I can be immediately transported to Florence, by the Duomo, surrounded by tourists, to that moment in my life when everything was possible, when I felt part-fairy, part-mermaid.
The French way
My childhood friend is an exchange student in Albi, in the south of France. She had applied to study in the US, and when she was given Albi instead, she sobbed. But she went. I am 16, in London for the summer, so I decide to visit and cheer her up. I am not prepared for her joy. I stay with her host family, and we go horseback riding, tour a spectacularly beautiful place I did not know existed. They drink bottles of wine at every meal, in simple glasses, not the fancy crystal we bring out at home. Their lunches go on for hours. We cannot imagine how they can eat dinner, but they do. They put cheese and meat in pies with golden crusts, and as the sun sets, the smell of baking floats through their lofty house. They light candles. They live like we see in the movies. We are riveted. She learns to make pastry, speak French. She will return again and again; she will, one day, start a pâtisserie in Mumbai that will grow into a national chain. We have been friends for 30 years now, through successes and failures, heartaches and delights. We have been through countless bottles of wine together. We drink them for no reason whatsoever because, as we learned in Albi, every day is a celebration.
I am grateful when a work trip takes me to Ladakh two days after an ex-boyfriend dies in a car accident, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. We are shooting a cover, and I manage to supervise the crew, make decisions on locations, outfits, hair and makeup, when we should eat meals, rest, drive. But I cry in the car going from one location to the next, in the corners of monasteries, into my pillow at night. There is barely any cell phone service, the food is terrible, altitude sickness hits me hard. I try to absorb the Buddhist sayings carved into the mountains and make meaning of things. The vastness of the landscape leaves me empty. Darkness and cold descend together, and I don’t realize I am outside the tent, alone, freezing, until my teeth chatter. It looks like there are a million stars in the Ladakh sky. None of them is him. He still feels much too close to be so far away. I realise then that I needn’t fly to New York for the funeral. I realise that space can make you feel closeness as much as it does loneliness. Eventually, I learn that travel cannot mend a broken heart, only time can; and even then, many years later, you may find yourself in places of staggering beauty and discover that the wounds haven’t fully healed.
One night, post a conference, we eat excellent French food and drink perfect martinis, go to a fashion show by a local designer who used to work for Christian Dior, celebrate at a club where teenagers are dancing to hip hop on tabletops and ordering Champagne that arrives with sparklers and cocktails of Chivas with green tea. The next spot overlooks the spectacular Bund; you can hear beautiful people speaking in a dozen different languages over a jazz singer from the American South. In someone’s apartment in the same skyscraper, the works of world-famous British, Chinese and South African artists hang side by side. Shanghai is more cosmopolitan than I have ever imagined. I leave with souvenirs: ceramic and porcelain made by age-old techniques in contemporary designs; handmade shoes from an all-women atelier; a soft, gold silk qipao. In one night, I am reminded of Paris, Dubai, Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong—all the great cities of the world—but in Shanghai, the energy is higher. It soon becomes my favourite metro. On subsequent trips I discover Beijing’s art district and Hangzhou’s haunting tea gardens. I love many places that the general media tells me not to, but in China, my ignorance stared me most in the face.
Home & away
Oh, the flights back home. As a child, carrying back Barbie dolls, cheese slices and VHS tapes with recordings of the Top of the Pops from London. My mother’s suitcase has rolls of wallpaper patterned with roses for her bedroom. Also, matching rose-patterned curtains, cushions, even a dustbin and water jug. Flights home from visiting her family in Hong Kong and Singapore, laden with food stuff; we would even plan what to eat at the airports before take-off. From college in America, always the cheapest ticket available, long-haul trips with no leg room, fights with airlines over missed connections, a desperation to get back to the familiar. Flights back from work trips, everywhere from New Delhi to Marrakech, mixed feelings as you sink into your seat, headphones on, ready to binge-watch, knowing you have but a few hours of undisturbed time until you land, and it all begins again.
So many nights in faraway places, alone, nobody to share the beauty with, or complain to about a bad meal, you realise what you most miss. Mom’s yellow dal with a tadka of fried garlic. Mom. That spot on your bed, the perfect pillow. Saturdays with your sister and niece. The truth is, you are your home. Everywhere you go, you carry pieces of home with you. That’s why it gets old so soon and you’re ready to fly again.
To Russia, with love
It’s my childhood dream come true: watching the ballet in Russia. Swan Lake. I wear a flowing pink dress to make up for my disappointment at not being a ballerina. The rest of the audience, mostly American tourists and a group of 12 Parsis from Mumbai, wear jeans. I’m overwhelmed even before the curtains go up—so beautiful is the grand theatre itself, all gilded chandeliers and red velvet. When it’s done, I ask a stranger to take a photo of me. It’s blurry, un-postable. I don’t want to sleep yet, I want to extend this night, make this last a little longer. I walk to a rooftop restaurant, order wine, look up at the sky and the glamorous Russians around me, thank the universe for making this moment happen. I go to bed smiling. I wake up with a high fever and shivers. A doctor arrives. I need a translator. Prescription. Antibiotics. I am too drowsy to eat. The day is a write-off. I depart the next morning. Lesson 1: How quickly things change; how grateful you must be for magic when it happens. Lesson 2: Buy travel health insurance.
Earth, wind, sky
One windy morning in Tasmania, Damien takes us out on a cruise, pointing out jagged dolomite cliffs embedded with bits of bone and fossils. The waters are royal blue and choppy, but you can see 20ft down. I spot abalone, coral, fish, two killer whales. Gusts of winds blow in your face; you zip up and fasten your belts. Damien explains how Tasmania separated from Pangaea, how the movement of plates pushed the mountains up from underwater after millions of years, how they’ve weathered since, a treasured insight into a different age. You soak it in. Never before has geography come alive like this. You want more, you wonder at the earth, how it has survived, how species evolve, how bountiful nature is, how lucky we are to even be here. You resolve to be healthy, to preserve the environment; you dismiss your next piece of jewellery or car. You feel compelled to be part of a generation that gives back. You want air like this, food like this, water like this, sky like this. You want to take it home; no, you want to move here; no, you want everywhere in the world to be like this.
A year of magical thinking
I wake up on 1 January, 2020, at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, after a quiet New Year’s Eve, and begin the day at a gurdwara. A week later, I am in Delhi, then Maldives, Jaipur, Dubai, Goa—then boom, lockdown. For the next seven months, we are all more in place than we’ve ever been in our lives. The first 40 days were the toughest. I would get some air on the terrace, but otherwise I was home, grateful for the quiet, the greenery outside, for work, for Netflix, for health and comfort. I dabble in Pilates, illustration, tidiness. My bucket list dramatically changes. From Japan and Argentina, I now dream of luxuries closer home: a wedge of grilled halloumi; a drive to the suburbs across the Sea Link, the Arabian Sea on either side, moody, grey and restless just like us. When I eventually make that drive across, it feels strangely like travel: escape, freedom, newness, familiarity, excitement. Sometimes, when you see something new that you are trying to commit to memory—like when you witness the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower for the first time—you are already losing a bit of the present moment. You are already experiencing nostalgia, even though it’s still in front of you. You are living in a memory. You are in a magical state, a delicious kind of purgatory. But that’s what travel does: it forces you to live in the present, and it forces you to remember. It forces you to be grateful. It is a practice in meditation, in courage, in letting go, in accepting, in adapting. You needn’t go far or wide to reap its benefits; they present themselves at every turn and corner, and in every colour of the spectrum. May the magic of travel reign again, soon, as it has in these pages for the past decade. Thank you for being part of our amazing journey.