Friday, 28 December 2012

Travel expands to fill the time available

Bucket lists are the in thing. Ten places to see before you die. A hundred places... Or a thousand places to see before you die, a book that has become terribly popular.

It's a neat idea; that there's a finite list. That you can do them all. Tick, tick, tick. Done.

So I'm making the final preparations for my second trip to India. Last time I saw the south, and Rajasthan, and a little (far too little) of Gujarat. This time for the north, and the great central plains, and the Himalayas. I have six months this time - three last time - and even so, I'm wondering how I will cram it all in.

India lends itself to lists. The Taj Mahal. Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, the 'golden triangle'. The lovely thing about listing India is that it's quite authentic; you can't be in the country long before you realise that it's a country whose geography has been seen in numbers and lists for centuries, even millennia; the twelve jyotirlingas, the four great Char Dham shrines that mark the extremes of the country, the Seven Sacred Rivers.

So you might think it's a question of marking up the Rough Guide, and then ticking the boxes.

But it doesn't quite work like that. Once you get interested in an area, you find more and more things added to the list. For instance, take Kedarnath, the northern sanctuary. I'm going to try to get there round about the time the shrine opens, which is currently estimated as 28th April; it's closed during the snows of winter. Now, getting to Kedarnath you'd think would be enough. But then I read that hardier pilgrims go on from Kedarnath to perform the Five Kedars pilgrimage - visiting Tunganāth, Rudranāth, Kalpeshvar, and Madhyameshvar - reflecting the fivefold nature of Shiva. Five more shrines. How could I not be drawn to them?

And so though you start with a single place, you end up with far too much on the list.

I could end up with an infinity of places to visit. I vow: "I'll go back" - back to visit the Tamil temples I missed last time (including Gangaikondacholapuram of the glorious name), to visit the Keralan hills, the Orissan marshes...But I've said I will not go back, not this time. Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new...

Even in Rome and Venice, cities I've been revisiting for twenty years or more, there are places I haven't yet been, small churches and tucked away corners that are on my list, that most first-time travellers wouldn't even know existed. Come to that, every year I look at the Heritage Weekend open days for Norwich and realise there are still surprises for me in my own city.

So travel somehow has a way of expanding to fill the time available, if you let it. What seems to be a relatively tractable list of sights to see branches out, becoming more detailed, like a river flowing to the sea through a delta of more and more choices, till at last, you have an infinity of possible places to go, and you're up against the constraints of mortality. Too many places... too little life.

I can't believe Alexander sat and wept that there were no more worlds to conquer. What a limited mind he must have had.

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