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‘Maps & Flags of the World’

Flags of the World but not inside an encyclopedia.

All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian

By Nitin Gairola

I would like to pick up from where I left off last week, which is my travelling the length, breadth (and depth) of this wonderful world over the past 15 years and seeing most of the natural world – the major deserts, largest forests, longest mountain chains, largest grasslands, national parks, UNESCO sites, etc., besides a century of countries across all continents and oceans.

My 1986 encyclopedia had stunning maps of the world.

And while I did all this post my mid-twenties, I think it all started way back at the age of six, much before the existential questions had popped up in my head. My parents had then gifted me Purnell’s Encyclopedia and, at that age, I was just fixated on the centre fold which had the flags of all countries. Did I think about traveling then? – Of course not. I didn’t even know the concept of world travel but somewhere deep down, it might have sowed the seeds of what was to emerge much later in life, due to the triggers in my twenties.

As I was going through the dusty and battered encyclopedia recently, I also saw that it had very detailed maps of each continent which showed the topography and vegetation as well. That was very unusual for a 1986 publication which generally would have colourful and basic political maps of the countries of the world. This detailing of the natural world and its biomes could be another piece in the puzzle, as I now recall being transfixed by these maps.

Only 149 flags in the world in 1986. Now there are 193.

The rest of my attention used to go to all the stunning photographs or illustrations of things I had no clue about – dinosaurs (at a time well before Jurassic Park, when kids knew nothing about them), the animal & plant kingdoms, deserts & jungles, volcanoes & mountains, airplanes & ships, city skylines, literature & art and unfortunately war & battle history as well.

Big wheels in Iceland.

Now, almost four decades later and with the advantage of hindsight, I can only thank my folks for gifting this encyclopedia to a six year old, well before the age when it could have been considered the right time for such a gift. And while I may have never liked academics in my school and was a very mediocre student (as far as grades go), I actually scored 96, each, in Geography and History in the tenth standard – and this was without studying, as in actually without studying. If that isn’t a sign, then I don’t know what is.

In the Middle East, acting like Lawrence of Arabia.

Whether I heeded the sign at that time or not is immaterial, but the fact is that this academic bent of mind stayed with me in my early days of poetry (I had a literary style of writing), in my corporate strategy job and in my travels as I landed in different parts of the world more like a photo-journalist or scholar than a tourist. This led to some incredibly immersive and mindful experiences and it wasn’t a case of passing through a part of Earth without understanding its significance or context. Also, I feel that if you do your ‘homework’ about a place, it shows a bit of respect to the locals and they in turn are interested in spending time with you and in opening up their lives and their world to you. When that happens, you see the same world as you would have otherwise, but you see it with a different pair of eyes.

In a train boneyard in Bolivia
On the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar

Today my living room has a globe and it has world maps, atlases and encyclopedias and that’s how I feel at home. I am always restless, thinking of my next adventure and maybe that’s the reason why I find it very hard to laze on a beach or yearn for a ‘staycation’ (a word which actually makes me cringe). How can I laze when even on long haul 10-15 hour flights, instead of watching movies or sleeping, what I enjoy the most is to take the window seat, check the live map on the screen and try to find major features on the Earth and the topography down below. This way I have seen the Nile River, Mount Fuji, Niagara Falls, Mount Kenya, The Horn of Africa, Hudson Bay, The Andes Mountains, the Arctic desert, Sentinel Islands, Uluru and so much more from 12 kilometres up in the air. What a privilege it is to fly, and we at times take such an amazing thing for granted.

At the South Sudan border.

To set the scene for what’s to come for you, my objective through this column is to bring home this perspective that travel is not just an escape nor is it similar to any other consumption. It is what I call ‘experiential consumption’ as opposed to ‘material consumption’, where you shop for products such as electronics, cars, houses, furniture, clothes, etc. Is travel free? No, it is not, but I have found it to be my highest return investment, since this investment was on my own development. Travel reshapes your personality, your views of the world and life itself and hopefully it turns you into a better person. All of this while adding experiences and memories that will last as long as you live.

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)