I spend a lot of time on the road. It began because of the obvious convenience. Driving allowed me to be free of the schedule of flight or train services. I could pack as much as I liked without worrying about luggage limits. So the question of five books or one Kindle stopped mattering so much. All of it, was the answer, every single time. And there was also the fact that when I drove around in Germany, it was educational. If I was going to spend the foreseeable future calling the place home, I decided that I’d best learn as much about the country as I could. Travelling by road seemed a good way to do it, especially with the chance to drive on the Autobahn being too alluring a prospect to turn down.
But there were other reasons too. My husband Ronny and I were newlyweds, who really would have liked to spend more time with each other, but couldn’t. Freelancing kept both of us busy, and often took us to far corners of the country (sometimes the world) without each other. And we discovered, upon peering closely at the calendar, that we often weren’t at home at the same time. The obvious solution, it seemed, was to accompany each other on our work trips. Instead of having to spend twice on flights, we’d just load up the car, and drive all over the place. Along the way we discovered more about each other than we would have closeted in our apartment for a lifetime. We had long conversations about life, the universe and everything in between. We exchanged confidences. We laughed. And when we were exceedingly tired, or hungry, we snapped at each other. But mostly, we laughed. And, when one of us got tired of being behind the wheel, we’d simply swap. When both of us were sleepy we’d just pull into a rest stop off the highway, recline the seats and take a nap. Oh, driving certainly taught us a lot.
But when I think about why I insist on driving endlessly, often preferring it to other modes of travel, I think of one winter morning in Sweden.
We’d been driving for approximately two and a half hours when I spotted the signboard. For a second, I didn’t quite believe that I’d seen what I had, so I stayed quiet. Then, I shook myself out of the stupor and said to my husband. “There’s a Buddhist temple nearby.” He wasn’t convinced, believing it was my imagination tricking me into seeing signboards amidst the snow. But he still turned that giant van that we were driving around, and headed back a few hundred metres. And sure enough, there it was.
Amidst the endless expanse of snowy roads in Fredricka, north Sweden, was a tiny blue board with two colourful prayer flags fluttering behind it. It said ‘Buddharam Temple.’ A little arrow pointed into a white lane that we proceeded to drive down. We found there a little temple that looked like it was a mixture of both Swedish and Tibetan architecture. Any place of contemplation has the effect of making one grow quiet. But I think this had an added element of surprise to it, because we really weren’t expecting to find a Buddhist temple in the faraway land. I was quieter than usual, watching snowflakes fall gently to the ground, with the temple in the background. It seemed like time had come to a halt. Suddenly I felt Ronny entwine his fingers around my frozen digits, as we stood there together feeling like two travellers who had chanced upon a secret place, hidden away from the world outside. It remains one of my favourite accidental discoveries from my travels on the road.
And it’s not the only one.
I’ve taken a wrong turn in Mallorca, and stumbled upon the best view of the azure Mediterranean that I’ve ever seen. I’ve pulled into a parking lot in Sweden, in search of a restroom, only to discover that I was in a candy store (in the very town that invented the iconic red-and-white candy cane) straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I’ve made a lifelong friend on a road trip that I didn’t want to go on to begin with.
I know today, the real reason that I choose road trips over any other type of journey is the hope for more serendipitous discoveries. The sort of things that give me the feeling that I’ve found something no one else has ever before. A little secret that travelling has, in that moment, brought me, and me alone.
Vaishali Dinakaran is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She and her husband have a habit of driving around Europe at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no apparent reason other than that there are roads.