The point, at which my life changed irrevocably occurred in December 1972. I was 10 years old.
My mother, in one of the many examples of her loving, and forward thinking nature, had decided the previous year that she would take my older brother, my younger sister, and I to see where both our deceased father, and she had grown up. So, in the summer of 1971, we headed to Calgary, Alberta where, with my dad-side relations in tow, we explored Banff National Park in true family fashion – while camping.
The following year, the family, without my brother who was busy working his budding entrepreneurial calling, flew to India: the often overwhelming sea of humanity that I would learn firsthand included myself, and an out-of-body experience that would serve as the single greatest defining moment in my life.
My first truly epic adventure included a virtual daylong flight via Swissair DC-8, with stops in Zurich, Cairo, and Karachi. Hijackings were making the news, and I remember watching passengers board at our itinerary’s waypoints, looking through the slits of my pretending-to-be-sleeping eyes, wondering if our plane was going to be the next big story.
Eventually landing without incident in Bombay, we made our way to Delhi. Our short visit would include the requisite tour of sites in the new, and old cities, before our pilgrimage moved on to Christmas spent with our relatives in my mother’s hometown of Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
While in the capital, I remember, as if it were yesterday, staring into the bloodied, and blinded eye of a boy of about my age, whose gaze stayed riveted on me as I left the compound of the Qutub Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret and a poignant example of India’s Islamic heritage. Later, I would come to realize that this was one of several experiences with déjà vu I would have on this trip.
I can still see the ashen face of the counter attendant in the Indian Airlines office. It was sheepish, and embarrassed as he recognized that his attempt to extort baksheesh, a bribe, from my mother for our supposedly confirmed internal flight had fallen on deaf ears. Worse yet, it was met with a demand to speak to his superior – all spoken in her until now hidden second tongue, Hindi.
Later days were spent in the geographical middle of the subcontinent, resplendent in new adventures as my sister and I inhaled the sensory overload of life in Jabalpur’s Sadar Bazaar. With our Indian aunts, uncles, and cousins, we journeyed in open Jeeps to live Kipling’s Jungle Book in Khana National Park. On elephant back, we waded through grasses taller than a man in search of tiger, all the while rocking to the motion of the pachyderm’s mahout-inspired gait, and soothed by the melody of my grandmother’s fragile voice as she recited her Catholic rosary prayers for the benefit of our communal safety. Guided by the patient instruction of our cousins, we would learn to ride bicycles around the sweeping gravel circuit of the Commissioner’s residence circular driveway – a pursuit that would draw me back to India decades later.
It is hard for me to say if a childhood trip was in fact the first step of fate leading to an outward bound-style high school education, a vagabond’s life as an adventure travel guide, or the quest for great stories as an aspiring documentary filmmaker, one who would ultimately align himself with a group of exceptionally talented individuals and contribute to the telling of human stories that truly spoke to him.
What I do know is that I have been extremely lucky in life. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life partner, family, friends, and countless acquaintances the world over, whose influence on me as a person, is entirely disproportionate to the short time we may have spent together. I have had my fair share of adventure, although I still crave more. I search for global news, preferring to glean local relevance from these decidedly worldly references. And, I still maintain that travel is the ultimate teacher of understanding, of empathy, and of our humanity.
But, in looking back, and with the decidedly 20/20 benefit of hindsight, one thing has become unquestioningly apparent to me. It was this six-week trip to India at the age of 10 that would prove to be the cornerstone of not only who I would become, but would continue to foster the person that I am arguably still becoming. Whether my mother recognized it at the time or not, this was the greatest gift she could have ever given me, and it became my very personal point of no return.
After a relatively late start, as compared to his childhood friends, the author has gone on to cycle extensively in 19 countries on five continents to date. He has subconsciously linked the notion of travel with cycle touring, dragging along anyone, and everyone willing to come along for the ride.