The Life Aquatic: Jim Sarbh | Nat Geo Traveller India

The Life Aquatic: Jim Sarbh

Cervezas along the cobbled streets of the Albaycin and hikes in Himachal’s heartland—Jim Sarbh keeps it cool as he soaks in the world.  
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On his travels, when Jim’s not basking in a body of water (right), he’s hitting the streets, eagerly drinking in local sites, like Granada’s glowing Alhambra Palace (left). Photo courtesy: Jim Sarbh (self), Photo by: lunamarina/shutterstock (wall)

Drop Jim Sarbh deep in the jungle, and he’ll thank you politely. Come back a week later, and you might find him swinging from tropical vines in a Tarzan-like loincloth, gambolling about the foliage with a jungle cat for company. He appears comfortable in his own skin, with a ‘plant guy’ on speed dial and a yen for the great outdoors.

The actor has hiked Himachal’s hill country, foraging for morel mushrooms and camping in snow-crested caves; he even lived in a Bihari ashram for five months, battling daily daydreams of his mother’s dhansak. While he speaks fondly of Parisian patisseries and plays in London, Jim seems most passionate about WWOOF-ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Granada or ambling around Guatemala’s ancient city, Antigua. The way he sees it, travel is best enjoyed by savouring each splash into the sea and every step on a summit.

 

How were you introduced to the world of travel?

When I was two, my father was the captain of a ship named The Angel Feather. I travelled all over the world, port to port, with absolutely no memory of doing so. My father, a romantic at heart, sailed into the Sydney harbour and fell in love. We migrated to Australia when I was three. My dad hung up his sailor’s hat and tried his hand at real estate.

My mother and him tell me stories of our travels, but hells bells I don’t remember a single one. These things affect your subconscious, however. So while I have a new-found appreciation for putting down roots, my nature is definitely that of a traveller—although, I do find those Instagram bios that say, ‘wanderlust faerie’ or ‘urban gypsy’ or ‘mad nomad’ or whatever, quite funny.

What is wonderful about this subconscious experience is that I feel I could be comfortable almost anywhere. Everywhere, people are people. Perceived differences are actually just the tip of the iceberg; underneath everyone is equally mysterious and unknowable, and consequently similar.

 

Any memories of growing up in Australia?

I have many wonderful memories of growing up in Australia: the bush up the street, walking to school with my grandmother, watching hail for the first time, hearing the giant weeping willow in the backyard crack and fall, smashing through our neighbours fence, the cockatoos that screamed bloody murder perched in our conifer trees, leaving meat out for the friendly neighbourhood kookaburra, raking up leaves in autumn, playing with the sap of a champa tree in our backyard, Kissing Point Soccer Club, and trampolining with my neighbour Kris.

 

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In Agra, Jim explores Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Center. Photo courtesy: Jim Sarbh

 

How was your college time in Atlanta? What cultural differences stood out between your adolescence in Bombay and college experience in America?

I really enjoyed college. The first two years were a bit of a blur (wink), but it was my first experience being on my own, being drawn to people that are still my best friends, and more or less doing exactly what I wanted most of the time. Invaluable time, invaluable memories.

The second half of college, I realised that Emory is actually a fantastic school, and dug into all of their resources with much pleasure. I took some amazing classes with  Susan Booth, Timothy McDonough, and  Lisa Paulsen…. You could also put your ear to guest lecturers such as Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, and Edward Albee. There weren’t that many differences to be honest. Having lived in Sydney, and having gone to the American School of Bombay, I felt absolutely at home. I enjoyed teasing people if they were prone to stereotyping, but it’s not like Bombay doesn’t have its fair share of that. Everywhere, people are people. They laugh, they cry, they contain multitudes.

 

When you travel for yourself, what do you look for in a trip or destination?

I look for a body of water to enter.

 

After a brush and flush, what’s your favourite thing to do after arriving at a new destination?

Enter a body of water. And, if unavailable, go for a walk. I love walking through new cities. I have found a good test for how much I will enjoy a city: it  depends entirely on how comfortable I am walking about. Bombay is not ideal in this regard, but the work is there. I also enjoy exploring the places you can sit outside and watch people pass you by.

 

Do you ever travel to clear your mind? Any ashram experience? If so, how has such travel benefited you?

I do, but I haven’t in ages. Nature—beaches, lakes, mountains—that’s where I would go. The Ngorongoro crater (in Tanzania). Anywhere where I can wander off into the woods is alright by me.

I had a particularly spiritual post-college year in Atlanta, acting, yes, but also practicing yoga and learning more about… the human condition? I had studied psychology, and I suppose I wanted another perspective.

So, yes, an ashram. Five months in Munger, at the Bihar School of Yoga. I wanted to live simply, do some karma yoga, live without the internet or a phone, or any distractions of the ‘outside.’ After that stint, I wandered up to Gaumukh or Tapovan, trekked around Dharamkot, did Vipassana, and generally just lived day to day.

Living day to day, I suppose, is my favourite part of travel or leisure. It is not about benefit, and yet, it is extremely benefitting.

 

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The actor fondly remembers the warm musical language and open nature of Granada’s cobbled Albaycin district (top left); Whether he’s roaming the ancient streets of Antigua (bottom left) or Lonavla’s flora (right), Jim relies on walking to give himself a better sense of place. Photo courtesy: Jim Sarbh (forest), Photos by: Lucy.Brown/shutterstock (structure), FCG/shutterstock (Granada)

 

Where’s the most offbeat place you’ve ever visited?

I don’t know. When in Dharamkot, a friend and I would just wander about and set up a tent wherever we wound up. Once it was in a cave three-quarters up a mountain covered in snow. We tried to do five days of fasting and silence. Haha, fat chance. We left on the third day and ate on the second.

 

What’s your top city for play lovers in India? Abroad?

Bombay. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to Edinburgh or anywhere lesser known than London and New York or Paris to watch theatre. That said, the quality and range of theatre in London is quite lovely.

 

If you could choose any place in the world for your next shoot, where would that be?

The Galápagos Islands.

 

Has there ever been one locale that’s really opened up to you more than others? A special connection?

Granada, in Spain. Isaac, one of my best friends, and I woofed around Spain for two months. When we got off the bus in Granada, everything just felt immediately familiar. We were only there for three days, yet, instinctively, the name comes to mind… The cobbled cobwebbed streets of the Albaycin, the cervezas, the warm musical language, and the open, friendly, nature of the people just immediately clicked with me. ‘I must have lived here in a past life,’ would best describe the feeling of getting off the bus.

(The extent to which I believe in reincarnation is limited to the feeling this phrase describes, however.)

 

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Clockwise from top left: Whether it’s sailing up to Sydney Harbour, noshing on Guatemalan street fare, gazing up at Volcán de Fuego, or reflecting on Hampi’s peach-hued horizon, Jim finds that everywhere people are people: they contain mystery and multitudes, just like the mesmerising dress braids of rural Guatemala (inset). Photo courtesy: Jim Sarbh (Hampi), Photos by: Taras Vyshnya/shutterstock (Harbour), Sebastian Delgado C/shutterstock (Food), Tango Mobile/shutterstock (Volcano)

 

Two things I know for certain are that you’re particularly fond of your cat and your plants. What’s it like travelling with your cat Mimi?

Well, Mimi was a lockdown-rescue, a year now holy shit, so we haven’t travelled much. That said, we went to Gholvad for New Years. Gholvad (a village in Maharashtra) is like the Maldives for middle-class Parsis who hate swimming, or the beach, or anything really apart from chikoos. She had never been outdoors so I was too nervous letting her out of a room, but I think she enjoyed herself there.

That said, I am currently shooting for a web series in Pune, and the team agreed to let me bring Mimi since the schedule lasts about a month. Vivanta Hinjewadi is a pet-friendly hotel, and she is guarding the room as I shoot. She gets a bit uncomfortable in long car journeys and she started meow-ling like a banshee about half-an-hour in, and continued for the remaining part of the journey.

But it is not right to kill a pet, so we managed fine. She took a day or two to get used to the new room, but now she zoomies around it like she is an IT professional molded by the technological blaze of Hinjawadi, Pune.

 

And where on your travels have you seen the most stunning plant life?

Actually the flowers are particularly gorgeous right now in Pune, but plant life…uh…my love affair with plants is newer—I’ve been more mesmerised by fauna on my travels. Alligators and dolphins in Florida, bears in Alaska, everything in Maasai Mara and the Serengeti, wombats and kangaroos in Australia, and the list goes on. I am particularly fond of tropical jungle plant life, and also the way trees grow and organise in high mountainous areas. I suspect my next long trip will involve plant life much more than ever before.

 

What’s your favourite meal to eat back in Bombay when you return from a trip?

Home. Dhansak. Or Jardaloo Chicken. Or Masoor Dal.

 

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As adventurous as he is, Jim also seeks out solace on his travels, sinking into the sand-carpeted solitude of Rajasthan’s deserts (bottom) and the marble-mellowed acoustics of the domed Catedral de Granada (top). Photo courtesy: Jim Sarbh (desert), Photo by: Songquan Deng/shutterstock (Cathedral)

 

In Bombay, where do you go (other than home) when you crave Parsi fare?

I don’t really. But I am not a fussy eater. Britannia is pretty delicious, and I don’t even mind dipping into Nina Aunty’s Dhansak from Social.

 

Has there been one stand out meal that you still remember fondly from your travels?

Ceviche! I went over for my friend Craig’s wedding in Mexico, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. It was so fresh, and delicious, and healthy, and went absurdly well with large quantities of beer and tequila.

Back when game meat was still legal, as a kid I went to a restaurant in Kenya that served the most delicious piece of meat I think I have ever had in my life, eland. Also, ostrich and crocodile were very tasty. Hard to explain what crocodile tastes like, but it was quite an experience. I suppose, I’m glad I had that experience, but even gladder I can never have it again.

 

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done on your travels?

The wildest thing I’ve done is too impolite for this interview.

 

For many fans out there, the music video Cold Mess made you as desirable as the lemon tart you so sensually held. What dessert, if any, on your travels, best embodies that kind of romantic quality food sometimes has?

Hahahahahaha. I love a good mille-feuille. I remember buying one from a patisserie in Paris, and wandering down by the Seine to eat it with my girlfriend at the time. But I have a feeling, I am going to experience a lot more food-based romantic memories with the girl who oh so co-sensually held that lemon tart.

 

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Besides Paris, Guatemala features as a top romantic destination for Jim. Photo by: Lucy.Brown/shutterstock

 

Your top city for romance?

I mean, Paris was nice, but I also had quite a romantic time in Antigua, Guatemala once upon a time. It was demolished by an earthquake in the 1700s and was rebuilt maintaining the integrity of its layout, and has been preserved more or less like that. Not a building over a single storey.

In the night time, up on the roof, drinking wine, cuddled together and looking out into the blackness, every now and then, a part of the sky would light up with these ethereal red sparks. Antigua is surrounded by active volcanoes.

 

Not to put you in a box, but what kind of traveller are you? Could you sum up your travel philosophy in one line?

A plunge is great, but a hike will more than do.

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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