My first ever trip abroad was to Bhopal in India, to visit relatives. I was 21 years old, skinny, long-haired and ready for adventures. I travelled alone and by the time I returned home, three months later, I was a changed man. I had well and truly caught the bug, my world had physically, mentally, and emotionally expanded. From a young age I knew I wanted to travel but my wanderlust took some time to be realised. My parents wanted me to complete my education before travelling anywhere. Perhaps they had an inkling of how much I would be transformed by the experience. They themselves hadn’t been back to India since the mid 1960s so while I was growing up we had never visited India as a family (we would go the year after my inaugural trip thanks to my insistence). Also, unlike today where travel is considerably cheaper, the expense had been too prohibitive.
I would read about far-off destinations, poring over our much-treasured complete series of Encyclopaedia Britannica that took pride of place on our bookshelf. But more than anything travelling is in my blood. My father’s influence led me, almost inevitably, to follow his footsteps. As a young man, he was the first in his family to go abroad. He quite literally jumped onto a ship in Mumbai, on a whim, when he was a teenager, and sailed around Southeast Asia. Later, when India and Pakistan became two separate countries, he divided his time between Karachi and Bhopal. In 1955 he arrived in the UK, and in 1962, after a brief trip back, drove a VW Combi from Bhopal to England (the drive of choice for every hippy on the flower power trail in the 1960s).
A huge photo album full of black and white photographs from his jaunts was kept in our living room cabinet. I would often leaf through the album wondering about these far-off places. Despite containing images that were utterly alien to me – a set of strange images with no reference point – I was transfixed by them. My father would tell me about the events and characters in these pictures and regale me with stories of the places he had visited, bringing the images to life. Not only was he passionate about travel, but my father loved history and geography, all of which rubbed off on me. One of his most prized possessions was a collection of maps ranging from local to world maps. I would spend hours studying them. It was all so random, yet an enriching learning experience as I began to understand how to use maps in different ways. There were physical maps, there were economic maps and there were maps showing the population of different places. Maps helped me to appreciate maths, history, geography, politics and economics at a very young age. Yet these maps were abstract because I couldn’t actually visualise what they looked like, these places that I knew so many statistics about, so it was left to my overactive imagination to daydream. By the age of eleven, I knew the capital cities of most countries and could probably point out any country in an atlas.