That's the beauty of hindsight I guess, that you can reminisce about family vacations with fondness, sitting under a quilt, half way across the world. When in reality, our summer vacation plans always managed strike a deep fear in my heart, primarily due to the machinations of my mother,who was the chief architect of all our vacations and ofcourse, her ole faithful the government of India.
I can't confirm for sure, but I think my mother developed a deep, unabiding wanderlust after she went on a sabbatical to europe when I was 6 years old and visited about a dozen countries. After that she was never quite the same and every summer, something deep within her soul rebelled and we found ourselves on a "vacation" in the boondocks of the country. Her vacation rumination usually began in March, usually when we would watch the 9PM news as a family and some news article like a terror attack in Kashmir or workers strike in west bengal would trigger her wanderlust and she would announce to all of us at the dinner table that our vacation that year would be to Jammu or Darjeeling. My brother and I would look at each other and then look at the food on the plate and seriously consider the probability of death by choking because anything was preferable to my mother's idea of a vacation.
See my parents were both government employees and the government of India has this policy of reimbursing travel for vacation for its dear minions and the said minions rightfully abused this policy to the hilt, choosing the farthest possible spot on the map. And so, even though we could not afford to travel to the far corners of the country ordinarily, the government of India, aided my mother's plans like a faithful but stupid accomplice. Yes the tax payers of this fine nation were funding the trip but who cares about the tax payer, fuck 'em! So she would proceed to book train tickets to places like Sikkim (1200 KM away), which entailed travelling by train for 3 days and eating train food for 3 days and then rightfully puking the train food for 3 days. I still haven't forgiven the kitchen at Behrampur station in Orissa, for making me puke for 4 hours after eating the food cooked there.I even remember, standing over the vibrating aluminium sink in the compartment and praying to god for all this to end. Deliver me from vacations instead of evil. So you can understand why my brother and I were about as thrilled as a bunch of hostages in a bank heist as far as my mother's vacation plans were concerned.
The government reimbursement policy was valid only once every two years so in the intervening years my mother would plan outrageous road trips because, get this, the Gov of India would also reimburse fuel costs! So into the hinterlands we went, in our car, a spritely Premier Padmini, my brother and I in the back seat and my mom collecting obscure plant samples on the way to assuage her botanist soul. We once went to this place called Bharvati, in interior Karnataka where I was promised a most splendid waterfall. We travelled for two days, 8 hours everyday, where my brother and I decided to play 20 questions to kill time. Long story short he always chose some obscure cricketer and I chose some obscure african dictator and we both accused each other of cheating and my mother shushed us and put some of her obcure plant specimens in between to keep us from killing each other.There is nothing worse than sitting next to your arch nemesis and being powerless to do anything because of the intervening, annoying fronds of an ugly plant. And when we reached Bhadravati all grumpy, the waterfall turned out to be a piddly little sprinkle. Yes, road trips were as fun as a beach trip to hell.
But even if the journeys themselves sucked and I almost died (inevitably due to throwing up regularly) she did take us to magnificent places in the country. Places you would never believe could ever exist or Places so different that it didn't seem like it belonged to the Indian polity. I remember visiting an ancient 9th century Buddhist Monastery in Sikkim when I was 9 years old and feeling like my world had been turned upside down. Seeing the monks, watching Buddhism at work, it seemed so removed from the conventional India. The India that was familiar to me. Seeing the mighty Himalayas was another such experience as well. The Himalayas looked so bad ass that they seemed to say "Fuck you guys, we're here to stay." The Himalayas are majestic yes but don't believe anyone who calls them serene. That's bull. The Himalayas to me always seemed to me like a bunch of bad ass motor cyclists who invaded town and for some reason decided to stay.They could be mean if they wanted to but decided not to. But they still evoked stifled awe and fear at their bad assery.
Another unforgettable moment was when I was on an abandoned island in the Andaman & Nicobar archipelago (Yes, again a gift from Government of India). I remember walking up the stairs of an old church that was crumbling and had Ivy running all around it. When I reached the top, I saw a deer at the altar, with crumbling stained glass and a peek of the azure waters, for a background. It still is the most beautiful sight I've ever seen and I was utterly spellbound! I blinked for a second and it was gone. No it wasn't an apparition but some idiot tourist had also sneaked up behind me and had decided to take a photo, all flashes blazing. I hate moronic tourists! Of course the deer ran away, and it occurred to me that you know you're on an island when the animals behave better than the humans.
The moronicity of tourists is something I could rant about for ages. We were once on a safari in a forest in southern India and we chanced upon a Lady Elephant shepherding her baby calf. Promptly all the tourists in the Jeep got out their long telescopic lenses and started clicking photos in a mad frenzy, so much so that she started chasing our jeep in anger. And what did the adults do? they continued to click pictures!! Would you really want to incite a female elephant who looked like she had just gotten off a bad date with a poacher the previous night? But I digress..
All those road trips and train journeys were nothing short of epic. It made us the individuals -my brother and I - we are today. We changed on a fundamental thanks to those trips. We became fascinated with cultures and people different from us, we learned to revel and partake in realities that were different from our conventional lives. We learned to respect difference of opinions and to treat divergent cultures with deference.That's why we both are the travel junkie nomads that we are, making a life for ourselves in distant lands. Most of all, what it showed was how beautiful our country was and how fortunate we were to see all shades of it - the beaches, islands, mountains and desert. That in itself was priceless.