In the mid-2000s, I had the first of my several brushes with unemployment. This was no well-considered sabbatical. Instead it was a surprise shove that came out of nowhere. Losing a job is crushing but even more so if you are the only one. In the company of a few colleagues though, your shoulders droop less and the gloom takes on a lightheaded spin. You cloak despair in disdain, adopting a “What, me worry?” face. And then, you blot the world, and travel.
So I accompanied one of my friends back to her hometown, Guwahati, where I was to join her mum and dad on a road journey to Shillong, and if the weather held steady, onward to Cherrapunji. The choice of Cherrapunji puzzled me initially for as far as I could tell, it was that place where it rained constantly. There were enough clouds hanging over me, I thought to myself.
But since my arrival, my friend’s father, who is no more, had been keen on us travelling by road. He was a looming presence, with a fondness for fine booze and house parties. I remember that trip now in snatches—Guwahati (quiet and hilly), Shillong (cool long before cool was invented), homemade khao suey, bootleg liquor shacks along the border between Assam and Meghalaya, and a worn-out CD of Vivaldi in the car.
The overwhelming memory I have though is of the Shillong-Guwahati highway, where locals peered out of tin-roofed houses and roadside shops hid culinary delights I had never encountered. And my host, stepping on the gas as if his modest SUV were an Italian speed monster. Driving unfettered always unleashed his inner outlaw, my friend would recall later. For a young me, he held an invigorating promise: Old age was fun and wild provided there were more road trips.
Often, the way the world travels now—take a flight and run down a list of experiences—feels as if we are settling for watching trailers instead of entire movies. Road trips fill the gaps in places you think you know.
That’s why NGTI always celebrates a breadth of road experiences. Some, featured in this issue, are familiar, like a bike ride through the outskirts of Barcelona, a family holiday in Australia and a jaunt through ancient Greece. Others, like a van ride through Mongolia and a illustrator’s perspective of the Californian coast, are utterly singular.
The best part about road trips? They are versatile. They can be joyous in the company of family and friends, and if you are lonesome, you can rely on the road to always keep you company.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.