Travel decoded

Avid traveller, Prabhu Ghate talks to Avril-Ann Braganza about travelling in a world that is rapidly changing

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Travel decoded
Clockwise: Church spire in Georgia looking across the valley at the Caucasus; Man with a jambia tucked into his belt in Yemen; Griffin capital in Persepolis, Iran, 500-330 BC; penguins and a huge arch, formed by a glacier in Antartica—Prabhu Ghate


What could possibly still excite someone who's had every travel adventure in the book (and written one of his own)? From running into a civil war in Cyprus, catching a cargo boat down the Mekong from China, being arrested during the Dirty War in Argentina, taking a paddle steamer up the Nile in what is today South Sudan, and journeying overland from London to Bombay, avid traveller and author Prabhu Ghate, at 75, says that you have to get off the beaten track to capture the element of surprise. And while the world may be getting increasingly homogenised, "there is no dearth of places that are still untouched and immensely stimulating – some take a bit of getting to, but sometimes they are within surprisingly easy reach," adds Ghate, who describes such travel experiences in his book By Thumb, Hoof and Wheel: Travels in the Global South.

Since the launch of his book, two years ago, he's travelled to Iran and Georgia; done a short trip using buses through the southern Balkan countries of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania; and visited three countries in West Africa. "The last one involved a long, but not too expensive flight. Once I reached Senegal, the neighbouring countries of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau (which I hadn't heard of) were a short share-taxi ride away."

It's not just sightseeing or cultural experiences that excite Ghate, who has been to more than 100 countries. It's the people, like Helmut Limzbichler – an Austrian who he met on a trek in Chile. Limzbichler was headed for Antarctica, where he would climb Mount Vinson and become the oldest person, at 68, to have climbed the highest peak in each of the seven continents. "I asked him when he climbed Mt Everest. 'Last year', he said modestly."

While hitch-hiking is one way to meet a variety of people, "it's no longer safe in many countries. Yet, there are places where hitch-hiking is making a comeback and is encouraged as a transportation solution, as in Cuba and Israel." Ghate, who since writing his book tried hitch-hiking in Cuba, says that people are often very willing to give single travellers a ride. "The couple sitting next to me at a restaurant in Macedonia asked me if they could look at my Lonely Planet. We got talking, and before I knew it they offered to give me a ride the next day well into Albania."

Even if hitch-hiking isn't your thing, a train or bus journey still throws open great many windows to have wonderful conversations with all sorts of people. "It helps to be travelling alone or in twos, so that you are more approachable, aware of, and responsive to your surroundings. That, and do some reading about the country you are travelling in," says Ghate, who finds guide books very useful for its contextual information, to plan the broad contours of a trip, and to suggest which parts of a country to visit or which part of a city to stay in.

He tries not to lock himself into too fixed an itinerary and does not always make bookings unless absolutely necessary (given visa and return flight booking requirements). "You learn about so many places to visit or stay at from locals and other travellers," he explains. For instance, "there was no information on whether it was possible to visit Somalia until I got to Ethiopia. It turned out that one could cross overland to a peaceful part of Somalia in the north (which calls itself Somaliland and would like to be rid of southern warlords by becoming independent)."

Ghate advises youngsters to get interested in a country before visiting it. "Read novels set there, read up on the history, culture and people, and if possible learn a few words of the language". He adds, "Don't try to cover too much ground. Give yourself enough time to be able to use public transport. Travel alone if possible, or at most with one or two other people. Rely on serendipity, and amazing adventures will befall you".

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