Traveling without a map

BY: Saurav Dhungana
October 9, 2013 · 15 minute read

A reminiscence of my wanderlust, on taking a different approach to traveling around western Europe, and what I learned on the road.

We need sometimes, to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.

These words are taken from the essay, The Philosophy of Travel by the Harvard philosopher, George Santayana. I start this essay with his quote because it was upon reading this that I came to realize, how important it is for us to travel in our lifetimes. This led to a three year period, where I worked super hard, but at the same time made time to visit more than 15 countries around Europe. Along the way, I met some of the most interesting people, tasted the best food and drinks, and had experiences that have shaped who I am today.

Chapter 1. Catching the travel bug

Growing up in Nepal during the Maoist civil war, coupled with super-protective parents meant I had to spend most of my life in the capital city. Except for the occasional day hikes around the hills of the Kathmandu valley and some trips to Eastern Terai plains, where we have our ancestral land, I had hardly traveled anywhere.

So, when life brought me to Finland, and by extension Schengen Europe, I had an unprecedented opportunity ahead of me. The only problem was, I didn’t have enough money, and no experience of being on the road. So, the first year, I had to focus on getting good grades, and securing an internship or thesis position at university before I finished the money I had borrowed from my dad. Thankfully, I was able to do that, and for the immediate future was in good financial footing.

But, I still hadn’t been outside of Helsinki, let alone to other countries. I didn’t have the confidence to travel alone, especially as English was not the language spoken in any of the European countries. I did manage to travel to nearby Sweden and Denmark on a trip with a couple of my friends. But mostly, I wasn’t able to convince most of my friends to travel to mainland Europe. There was even one occasion when a friend told me, “Ghumera k huncha?”, when I asked him if we can go visit a nearby city. This translates to, “Why bother traveling, when you know no one there?”.

I had no answer to that question right then, for I had never asked it myself. For me, perhaps, the desire came about because I never truly traveled before landing in Europe. Perhaps, it was because I had just bought a camera, and I needed to put it to good use. It might also be something more primal. Seeking those answers led me to read some of the most influential work on travel. It was doing this that I discovered a real gem of an essay called Why We Travel?, by Pico Iyer. If you haven’t heard of him I beg you to read some of his work, for you won’t find a better contemporary travel writer. The essay started something like this.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

He then goes on to quote Santayana, and eloquently answers the question his essay’s title asks, drawing from his vast experiences traveling around the globe. Though he’s a man born in the west, and expressed his thoughts on traveling to places less developed, and I had taken the opposite route; his words struck a real chord with me.

Pico’s mention of Santayana got me curious about this man that I’d never heard of before; and so I started reading about him and got a book he wrote. I discovered that Santayana, who wrote mostly around the beginning of the twentieth century, goes deeper and further into the subject of human travel in his The Philosophy of Travel. Where Pico draws wisdom from his personal experiences, Santayana elucidates the very reasons we travel by differentiating us (human) animals from plants by the fact that we have the gift of mobility. Reading this was enlightening for me, as I’d never thought much of our ability to move with our feet.

There I had my answer — the power of locomotion is the very source of human intelligence and our most fundamental instinct. Thats why we travel !

Chapter 2. I walk, therefore I am

Driven by my own desire to travel and having gathered enough inspiration, I made a decision not to wait anymore to start exploring Europe. The wanderlust in me had taken over. I wasn’t going to wait for anyone else’s calendar to free up. I would travel on my own if I had to, and not be afraid of foreign places with languages I didn’t understand. Besides, I knew few people who lived in mainland Europe, so I could go visit them. This is exactly what I did. I went to Bonn in Germany where a cousin lived with his family.

So, for the first time I bought a ticket alone, with some instructions on how to reach a bus station from the airport, where he’d pick me up. Now, most of you would be asking why am I talking up such a simple incident with such importance. Back then, I didn’t know what Germany was like and whether I’d be able to find my way to the city from the airport at night. Thankfully, everything was super organised and people did speak a bit of English. I made it to where my cousin was waiting for me.

“Hmm”, I said, “That was easy enough”. The next day he showed me around Bonn, and told me about a nearby city Cologne, that had a very famous Cathedral. Unfortunately, his work meant he didn’t have time to go with me. So, I had to decide if I wanted to stay in Bonn or visit Cologne on my own. I went of course, and again with instructions he gave me on how to get there by train and what to see around there. “Get a map from the tourist information service”, he said, “and you should be fine”. I did as he said and following the map from the tourist information center did the standard tour around the city. That was great and not so scary going around a new city alone. After going back to Bonn that night, I searched around and the next day, I was off to Dusseldorf.

On reaching Dusseldorf though, I realized it may not have been the best day to visit. That weekend happened to be Easter and most of the market, including the tourist office, were closed. So, here I was in a big German city, mostly closed and no map or instructions to follow. I had to make a choice — either go back immediately to the train station or try to make my way around asking people on the streets. As you guessed, I decided with the latter and it turned out to be a great decision.

But it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar. Anaïs Nin

I tried to look around a shop with maps, but didn’t find one. Being rather shy, I don’t really strike up conversations with random people easily. Though, this time I had to, and so I asked a lady who worked in the train station where the city centre was. She barely understood English, but was rather kind and tried her best to make me understand in what little English she could speak. I went about following what I understood from her gestures. Pretty soon I found myself in a dead-end street, hopelessly — lost in translation.

So, I retraced my steps. I saw a group of young people eating in a cafe by the street, and thought may be they spoke good English. I went up to them and said ‘Guten Tag ! Can you help me? I’m a bit lost here’. They turned out to be a really friendly bunch and were quite helpful. I got invited to sit and drink beer with them. I never particularly liked beer, but this would be my introduction to German beer, which is now my favourite beer (yes, even more than Belgian beer). They were kind enough to show me around. I asked them where I could eat some German wurst, and they took me to a local place, where they went often. That is still the best wurst I’ve ever had. They also invited me to stay the night and party with them, but I had a flight back early next morning, so I had to return to Bonn.

So, here I was in a city I didn’t know, with a bunch of people I’ve just met, and I got to know the place like no tourists ordinarily do. This got me thinking about the four kind of travellers Santayana talks of — the emigrant, the explorer, the merchant and the tourist. I reckoned I’d just foregone becoming a tourist and became an explorer of sorts; and it was so much better. Not knowing anything about the city, and having no designated tourist map and guide, I was able to experience the place more intimately.

This revelation is what makes this trip so important for me. Those words of Santayana and Pico finally made sense. I wanted more, and decided to (un)plan any future trips on purpose and see where I end up. Whichever place I may choose to visit, I’d not do a lot of research or go to the tourist office. Heck, I’d not take a map, and risk getting lost. As I’d discovered not knowing what to expect from a place, and experiencing it through the local perspective is what real travel is. So, that’s how I came to know Europe, as the purest form of an explorer — the wanderer.

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars. Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll

I won’t go into much detail about the ensuing trips I took around Europe. That will make this essay much too long. The map in the feature image shows most of the places I visited during the next few years of my time in Europe. Many I took with my friends, some I did on my own. Each dot represents memories I shall cherish for the rest of my life. Most of those places were explored without following any maps, taking wrong turns many times; but always found something more interesting as a result. Some of the friends I made in these places have now become lifelong friends.

There is a certain liberty you feel, going to a place with only the bags you can carry, and some money in your pocket. Your possessions don’t own you anymore. You have an almost Zen-like, beginners mindset. You are also representing your people in a new place, as mostly I would be the first Nepalese those people had met. Although, due to the great number of young people choosing to leave Nepal, there was hardly a place where I didn’t meet a fellow Nepalese. Also, at the same time, you also feel like a citizen of the world, and where you come from doesn’t matter.

By interacting with locals and experiencing their culture from within, a little bit of it becomes a part of you; and you leave a little bit of you with them. I stayed in hostels, not hotels, and later when I discovered Airbnb, in home-stays.

These experiences made me understand that whichever place we come from, we are fundamentally all the same. Most people in the world are kind, honest, and helpful; although there are exceptions. It also is a good idea to learn a few words of the local language. People generally get really happy to see a foreigner make the effort to learn a bit of their language, and are more willing to help you.

These journeys also started changing me. I would not be the same man returning back to Helsinki, as I was before I went. Each visit taught me new things about life, and importantly also about myself.

During this time, I had a full-time job as well. But, I managed both. One great thing about European work culture is that they really value work-life balance, and the holiday allowance is really generous. I sometimes worked extra-long hours to earn more holidays; for longer trips. I went wherever my heart asked, my feet took, and my visa permitted. It was great.

As good as all of my travel escapades were, there comes a time when you have to do more normal things again. Despite traveling so much, I never learned to read a map that well. I didn’t want to; the whole fun was in not knowing exactly where I was, discovering new places and people. This had worked out quite well for me.

Last year, my parents visited me in Finland. So, I decided to take them around Europe, and to some places I’d never been to before. Since, I couldn’t risk getting them lost, I decided to become the tourist, and finally learned how to read a map properly. I planned the whole trip beforehand, down to every little detail. This trip turned out really great; even though they were standard tourist trips. I played guide to my parents; and frankly it was about them, not me. I am still proud and happy to have done that.

Chapter 3. And I guess I am - homeward bound

So far, I’ve said a lot about the joys of traveling to foreign places, and experiencing whole new cultures and people. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that, traveling also teaches you about your own roots. It gives you a fresh pair of eyes, with which you look upon where you come from. Not having the things that you take for granted is a rather humbling feeling. This might sound surprising coming from someone who went from a under-developed country to the developed world; but thats what I felt. In fact, figuring out that my Nepal was not as poor as we are made to believe was a huge lesson. And, I yearned to experience her natural richness, which I hadn’t done during my growing up years.

The only time you hate the road, is when you’re missing home. Passenger, Let hr Go

I had to correct this, and see my country while I was still young and free. After all, I came from a place that was blessed with so much natural beauty, from the grand Himalayas, the rich green hills and vast fertile plains. I also had spiritual and moral reasons for wanting to come back; but perhaps the desire to travel and see Nepal was what ultimately gave me the final push.

After coming back I decided not to take up any office job; I’ve done that for too long. Instead, I am traveling to many places around Nepal. It has been awesome so far, getting to know my own country outside the confines of the capital.

I also want to start something on my own; though, I had nothing lined up when I came. May be it’s because my traveling habits: not knowing where I’ll end up, and discovering a better path have made me a risk taker. So, once again I find myself without a map. This time I decided to do away with the career route chosen for me. I’ve used this time to reflect on what I really want. I’ve been busy searching a new path; something that will make me happy - a path with purpose.

Recently because of some serendipitous events, I think I’ve already figured out a big part of that puzzle. And, I’m happy to say that I’m now working towards making it a reality. A small hint: traveling is a big part of it. But, thats another story for another time.

Hoping I will be successful in creating new maps, and shed new light, in this road less traveled.