Why I travel - and why I miss it now

I miss travelling.

I used to travel often, sometimes with family, sometimes with friends. From the brainstorming of possible destinations to the thrill of taking off, I enjoyed the entire process.

Much like the early stages of romantic love, the lure of travel obscures the pain of visa applications, iterative discussions about itineraries and endless scrolling through hotel listings.

Given the bittersweet nature of travel, I have no doubt that the compulsion to remain homebound is making me pine for travel more ardently this year.

When I moved to the United States, I found the wide open spaces disconcerting. In densely populated Mumbai, where I grew up, walking down familiar streets meant running into at least a handful of people I knew.

In America, I could walk past carparks filled with cars, but not make eye contact with another person.

After hours of driving, I would find a McDonald's outlet that looked exactly like the one in my neighbourhood; unlike in India, where dialects and cuisines changed as our vehicle passed through districts and states.

When we first arrived in Singapore, my teenage daughter was surprised to note that "airport" in Singapore meant only international airport and there was no domestic airport.

Over time, I learnt to use "overseas" as the catch-all term for travel, since there was no simple "out of town" trip that could be accomplished without leaving the red dot.

"It's the smallest place I have ever lived," I complained to whoever was willing to listen. How could I live on such a small island?

The solution turned out to be extremely simple: Singapore Airlines. Through the airline's network, I could get to San Francisco and Copenhagen as easily as I could to Siem Reap and Bali. The ease of navigating an award-winning airport made departure a breeze and the easy efficiency upon arrival made me feel at home the minute I landed.

In seven short years, the magic portal of Changi Airport transported me to 17 countries - until the pandemic hit. My plans to add three new countries this year to my current tally of 30 were thwarted.

As I walked around the green trails in my neighbourhood, hiding my disappointment under my mask, I looked closely at the pink and purple blossoms that brightened the trail, flowers which I had previously noticed but always ignored.

Why was I so careless with the familiar and so fascinated with the foreign? Was the urge to get away a response to a push from the dull routine of daily life? Perhaps I could try a staycation at a luxury hotel with an in-house spa.

Or was it the pull of exotic locations in faraway lands? Perhaps a virtual Airbnb experience could satisfy the craving for a peek into a glamorous, far-flung locale.

Or was it a wish for expansion that could be experienced only by leaving the borders of a city-state? Maybe a short "seacation" on a cruise ship that floated in international waters would help.

Travel offers us an easy escape, a change of scene that recharges our senses. We forego the comforts of home and take off by road and sea. But there is something special about flying, a feeling of fleeing not just man-made boundaries on land, but also a pulling away from earth itself, for however long the aircraft stays airborne.

Even before arriving in a new country, the flight becomes a gateway for new experiences.

Not surprisingly, when Qantas offered a six-hour flight across the vast continent of Australia that promised views of Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef, tickets sold out in 10 minutes. Eva Air's three-hour moon-gazing flight during the Mid-Autumn Festival was fully booked.

To me, getting on a flight that takes off and lands at the same airport doesn't hold much interest.

While I fondly remember the comfort of business-class cabins on otherwise boring business trips, I can't forget one interminable transatlantic flight in the early days of my travelling life when I was seated between smoking passengers in the rear of the aircraft.

Being vegetarian limits my food choices on airplanes and I have often been left hungry when my request for a special meal was ignored or lost.

Whether I am flying out or returning home, I always choose itineraries with direct flights when possible or those with the shortest overall travel time.

I travel to be awed and inspired by new places, to be surprised and challenged by novel experiences that cannot happen when I'm reading a book or watching a show on screen.

In the words of Nobel laureate Anatole France: "What is travelling? Changing your place? By no means. Travelling is changing your opinions and your prejudices."

Whether I soared above the otherworldly fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon or walked through the labyrinthine medina of Fez, I engaged with my new environment with all my senses.

In Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, my friends and I grinned in response to the flamboyant, good-natured greetings of "welcome, India" from eager salesmen, irrespective of whether we stepped into or moved away from their shop.

High up in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, a little girl pointed to the red bindi on my forehead and folded her hands in a namaste gesture, followed by a typical Bollywood dance move that made me laugh, but also connected us with a shared sense of knowing.

I was humbled by the kindness of our tour guide at Jostedal in Norway, where our ambitious kayaking and glacier-climbing expedition turned into a freezing nightmare; and impressed by the young hitchhiker from Belgium, whom we picked up on a warm December day in New Zealand's South Island.

Whether it's a quick weekend trip to Penang or a two-week driving tour of Europe, having encountered a variety of people and experienced the vagaries of nature, I return home refreshed, renewed and willing to observe my home turf more closely.

I agree with novelist Ann Patchett, who said: "The best vacation is the one that relieves me of my own life for a while and then makes me long for it again."

Given the current state of the Covid-19 world, with no travel in the foreseeable future, this is all I can do: brew some Moroccan mint tea, fire up the tajine and set up a Zoom call with my travel buddies to pore over photographs and relive happy memories of time spent exploring faraway lands.


•Ranjani Rao, a pharmaceutical scientist originally from Mumbai, is an avid traveller who has visited 30 countries and flown through cities from Auckland to Zanzibar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2020, with the headline 'Why I travel - and why I miss it now'. Subscribe