Footprints in the heart

What makes seasoned travellers miss a particular place more than others, and form a special connection with it? We speak to a bunch of globetrotting ‘wanderlusters’ to get to the bottom of it

By Anjaly Thomas

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Backpack Asian man on the mountain see view panorama the beautiful nature landscape of the sea adventure on vacation travel leisure to Asia on Mu Ko Ang Thong island National Park background, Thailand
Backpack Asian man on the mountain see view panorama the beautiful nature landscape of the sea adventure on vacation travel leisure to Asia on Mu Ko Ang Thong island National Park background, Thailand

Published: Sat 20 Nov 2021, 6:40 PM

Fifty countries ago, when I was a novice traveller, I always ‘missed’ a place I travelled to. That feeling lingered for weeks or months before the next destination came up. Then I missed that place too. The roads, the food, the people, the airports, the landscapes... everything became one big ball of memories I wanted to keep going back to. Sometimes, I’d spend hours looking at photos and souvenirs, and desperately tried to keep myself updated on everything happening there. It was a hard place to find myself in, because it seemed as though my life was centered on travelling and then some more.

Then one day, I stopped missing places. I took fewer pictures of them, rarely bought souvenirs and never travelled to “get over a situation”.

So, it came as a shock when someone told me, quite vehemently, that she was appalled at my indifference to Azerbaijan, that I visited sometime back. “Why, I miss everything about it,” she concluded, shaking a finger at me. “What a great place is it!”

“Well, I quite enjoyed my time there,” I countered. “The food, the vibe and the journey to Gabala were great, but I don’t miss it at all now that I’m back home.” She promptly cut me out of her life. “We don’t connect on the same level,” was all she said as goodbye.

Following this, I did a bit of soul-searching. Of my travels, I remember the connections with people because that rewarded me in unexplainable ways. I remember the kindness, the laughter, the sunrises and the Mongolian skies at night. Today, arriving at a new place is my way of satisfying my need to learn and be challenged. I suppose I am now a “quest-oriented” more than an “action-oriented” seeker which perhaps explains my transition of emotions.

Fact is, recalling memories of my journey makes me happy but I certainly don’t miss “everything” about any place, least of all walking on the cobbled streets in Baku’s Old City, for example. Or elbowing my way through Ho Chi Minh.

But the question persisted: why do we miss the place at all?

Reasons are inconclusive

Travellers (not tourists), always find a place they miss, says Lawrence Cenotto, a US-based author and traveller. “That is because travellers don’t know where they are ultimately going, and each discovery is a new surprise — some of which leave more powerful impressions than others. The unexpected adds to the emotional impact. Tourists, in the meantime, don’t know where they have been! I don’t think a tourist, generally, is as likely to ‘miss’ a place.”

Having travelled to 143 (and counting) countries, Lawrence could very well be an expert on places and connections made with them. He says what we miss most is perhaps the people who made that place special — whether it is because they singled you out for some extraordinary care or adopted you for the length of your stay. “We may have crossed paths with somebody who becomes special to us, and we get that one bright, singular moment in the sun together that never gets repeated, and it is natural to miss that.”

Then, there is also the uniqueness of geography. “For example, the indelible memories of cliff divers’ swan-diving from 112ft into 12ft of water with a setting sun silhouetting their performance has always stood out for me. Or Lago Atitlan in Guatemala — ringed by nearly a dozen volcanoes and spouting up the most beautiful sunset that I’ve ever seen. That too will always stand out for me, due to its uniqueness.”

Lawrence admits it is okay NOT to miss a place when you leave it because they cannot all have the same emotional impact on you. “Your experience is defined by your values and interests. So, when people react oddly to my likes or dislikes, they are simply looking to build a bond. When you do not willingly join that bond and make it bigger and stronger, naturally they are disappointed.”

Missing is not a compulsion

“Let every man praise the bridge he goes over,” says Zoltan Rendes, a former war correspondent and CMO of SunMoney Solar. As part of his former role as war correspondent, Zoltan travelled around the globe and lived in several places, including war-torn countries. “For me, travelling became about people and the vibe they created. However, if you asked me whether I missed those places, I’d say yes — because not all of it was bad and evil, but because the people I met showed me how humans can rise above the challenge. Those are unforgettable memories. I have the same nostalgic feeling for some of the places I visit on work as an entrepreneur now.”

Zoltan says that experiencing cultures or absorbing daily life at a faraway land gives you a lot of inspiration and energy. It is also important who you travel with or share those experiences with. “I travel with my 10-year-old son and all of those places we visit I miss instantly after getting home. So, missing a place or feeling nostalgic about it is part of a good travel experience, because you miss the good times you had there, the vibe and energy. It is never about the buildings, the cities or the amazing tourist attractions — it is the people who make a place beautiful and memorable,” he says.

As a frequent visitor to the UAE, Zoltan’s most recent visit concluded with a trip to Expo 2020 with his son. “Despite the fact that I have been in Dubai so many times, sharing this trip with my son made it even more special. Will I miss this? Certainly.”

Of course, there are bad trips and bad experiences one doesn’t even start to miss. “Maybe people who spend their holiday on an all-inclusive beach will find it hard to miss that experience — but if you dive into a culture, you will miss the amazing experiences and adventures you had.”

Zoltan believes there must be no compulsion in liking or disliking a place because part of making memorable trips is letting go of any judgement you might have, so you can really absorb local cultures. “So who am I to judge the ones who don’t feel that way?”

Expectation vs reality

Bangalore-based engineer and avid traveller Devan Varma says it is normal to miss a place one has travelled to, especially if one

has experienced something different and special. “It is all about feelings,” he says. “A person is unlikely to miss the long museum queues

or overpriced sandwiches, but they will certainly miss the feeling of being included.”

For him, it works in three ways. “I first smell, then hear and finally see — that way all my senses are attuned to the novelty of a new place. This is especially true of food… so yes, when I say I miss a place, I usually mean I miss the food, its fragrance, taste, the smiles and love that go into the making of it — be it shashliks cooked on coals in Samarkand or the whiff of steam rising from the pot of an idli-vendor in Madurai.”

Devan says he is glad not to be an “influencer” of any kind, because it allows him to feel and enjoy the place for what it is without the pressure of falling in love with it or promoting it. “Often, we arrive with pre-loaded images and when reality doesn’t match expectations, things turn for the worse. It is then okay to be disappointed or dislike the place altogether without feeling the need to cue in with a popular opinion of a place. Visiting the Taj Mahal was truly a dampening experience — not because the Taj Mahal is any less grand, but for the experience leading up to it.”

Long-term resident of UAE and architect Jaison Joe says that to understand why people like to travel, you must consider the psychological needs that travel meets. “My travels are oriented towards architecture, culture and food,” he says. “Although I might not always get a serving of all these in one place, expecting such a thing to happen is silly.”

According to him, one finds the beauty in what one sees and it’s how deeply that beauty impacts the person that sets the pace for memory hinges. “There is never a compulsion to feel warmly towards any certain thing or place. Sometimes you may find some amazing Instagram pictures of a place and it may look attractive to most, but I may not necessarily correspond to that view. It is this difference we must learn to accept, and not thrust our opinion or judge people by their choices.”

For him, it is unlikely that he’d miss a place that doesn’t pop into his memory as rapidly as the others that do. “The whole concept of why and how is as difficult as describing beauty, but it could largely depend on when you travelled, at what stage in life, the person you travelled with and whether you returned a changed person.”

Jaison says that destinations or foods that are similar to each other and lack the “shock” factor are less likely to make you think back on them. “Anything as contrasting as the cherry blossoms in Japan and foot works of Flamenco dance in Spain might just be what imprints themselves in your mind, although I am not against revisiting countries that I have loved.”

Heart rules the mind

For Hind Al Naqbi, a Dubai-based PR and digital consultant, travelling involves three stages: firstly, relaxing; then discovering; and, lastly, learning.

Hind, who started travelling at the age of 16 (and has completed 60 countries since) believes that what people miss most are memories they created. Be it related to food, people or lessons learnt. “It is those filtered memories that come back to us, making us yearn for it all over again — even if for a fleeting moment. Sometimes these memories start to rule our lives too.”

Of all the places she has travelled to, there were a few that were contrary to her expectations, giving rise to some bad memories. “So naturally, there is little chance of me ever thinking of the place fondly, no matter how much others extol its greatness,” she says. “In the end, what matters is my feelings and not the need to be part of the crowd. I am not obliged to like what others do — be it food, art or landscape. It is strange how people look at you, even judge, when you tell them, I didn’t particularly like the Seychelles or Thailand — but my travel experiences have taught me to take everything without reacting. Afterall, not everyone can have the same experience and be enriched by it… and experience defines perception.”

Nandini Jain, a UAE-based corporate lawyer and traveller says any emotion that drives her to act on it means she is missing it. “By that logic, if I ever missed a place, well, I’d be packing my bags and going back to it. Like Rome. Never have I been so moved by art as I did in Rome… every other place I have been to after that is less impactful — and, in turn, I begin missing Rome,” she says. “It pains me to think that I might not experience that emotional satisfaction again.”

Nandini says that people react in a particular way out of their own life experiences, their thought process, inability to understand the unsaid, and their own feelings. “We are emotional beings after all, and it is only natural for our hearts to rule our minds when it comes to travel.”

A Nepali friend once told me she misses a place because of the sensations it produces. “So, it might not be the place itself, it is the sensations I perhaps miss. Not exactly pleasant memories, but in such situations, I felt completely alive,” she said.

I agree with her view. My identity is defined by my travels, but I am experiencing a mind-shift. Like the Maslow Pyramid, now that my desire for adding up the number of countries has been met, I am looking for places to uplift my soul, where I get cultural shocks, where the language gets more complicated and where people are different. Perhaps it is what I need to reignite the spark.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly)

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