When I’m trying to figure out my next travel destination, I often pick a place that’s unfamiliar, that has something exciting, or exotic, or different to offer. Most of us have a list like this at the back of our minds, of places we want to visit someday because they’re intriguing, mesmerising, or like no other.
But there are instances when I pick a holiday spot that’s tried and tested, one that isn’t going to produce any challenges. Now and again, I want to stay in a hotel with room service, spotless cotton sheets, and a sunken bathtub with fabulously scented bath products. Not because that’s how I live at home—but precisely because that’s not what I’m used to. I want, at times, to enjoy the luxury of coming back to my room to find the toilet paper miraculously refilled, the tub scrubbed down to perfection, a choice of pillows, and even a sweet treat on my neatly turned-down bed.
And then again there are other times, when I’ve made the choice to travel to places I don’t really want to see at all. I have on occasion crossed great distances to arrive in one-horse towns or obscure cities not on any tourist map, only to visit a friend.
In 2009, during a visit to the U.S., I made such a trip to the North American city of Flint, Michigan. Until a dear friend moved there to teach anthropology at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, I had never even heard of the town, let alone harboured a desire to go there. My research revealed that Flint topped America’s list of cities with high crime rates and the most homicides. It had a declining population, and was, at best, a dying city, yet another victim of de-industrialisation. At the time I wasn’t fully convinced I should go. Still, I went with my daughter, then 3.5 years old, because I wanted to spend time with my friend.
We didn’t go sightseeing; we didn’t make exciting plans; we just hung out in our pyjamas and chatted, ate, and caught up on life. It wasn’t the kind of trip that yields party stories, or one that invites likes on Facebook and Instagram. It didn’t allow me to tick off another destination from my dying-to-visit list. But it gave me a chance to renew a friendship, to pick up where we left off, to build fresh memories.
A few days ago, that dear friend from Flint passed away unexpectedly. His departure brought back a flood of memories. Of lazy hours spent at his kitchen table, always laden with delicious food; of a morning spent repeatedly throwing a blue ball for his dog Kimchi to retrieve; of him secretly buying my daughter a doll she wanted and catering to her every whim.
Why I made the trip to Flint makes even more sense to me now. There are times when the place you’re travelling to doesn’t matter, because the only motivation is to touch base with someone you care about. Every act of travel does not need to be an expedition to the unfamiliar, or into a world of discovery. Sometimes we just need to go where the heart directs.
Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Nowhere’s Too Far”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.