Terror & the Traveller’s Map


Terror & the Traveller’s Map

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

Iheard the news on a rainy Saturday morning. I’d just crawled out of bed, still disappointed by Belgium’s loss to Wales in the Euro Cup. My wife had a grim look as she checked the news – terrorists had attacked a café in Dhaka. As I lit my usual morning cigarette, I wondered, “How safe is the world for the ardent traveller? Is the traveller’s world map shrinking every day?”

I barely travelled when I was in college and university, primarily due to a lack of adequate finances. I did the usual city hopping within India for my education. But visiting foreign shores would have to come later, when I had a job, and hence, better balance sheet. Being an avid reader of history and geopolitics, I was eager to see everything – Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the churches of Europe, the Byzantine wonders of Istanbul, the ancient treasures of Greece and Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the plains of Mongolia, and the lost cities of Cambodia and Myanmar.

By mid-2010, I had visited eight countries in Europe and Asia. I found kindness from strangers, relaxed before beautiful landscapes, and pored over history in many a museum. In September that year, I decided that it was time to visit the Middle East. My plan was to take a three-week break in January 2011 and make my way to Egypt. From there, I would travel to Syria and Jordan. My final destination would be Israel.

In December 2010, a man named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia after he was banned from selling fruit. This fuelled the fire that we now know as the Arab Spring. The tide of protests against autocratic governments would soon consume places like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon. My mother, who has been a constant sufferer of my idiosyncrasies, pleaded with me over tears on the phone not to venture to the region. And for once, I decided to listen to her. So, I cancelled my plans, hopeful that things would get better soon.

Alas, I have been proved wrong. War and political turmoil still rage in the region, robbing it of its innocence, economic and social order, and heartbreakingly, tourism.

The Middle East setback didn’t deter me from travelling though. I found myself in parts of South-East Asia and Eastern Europe over the next year. By the summer of 2013, I was already planning a new adventure. “Why not travel through China to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway?” From Russia, I could also take a quick detour to Ukraine. I resolved to work hard for a year, accumulate leave, and set forth on my journey in the spring of 2014. Or so I thought.

In January 2014, a friend who was just back from assignment in Moscow brought with him horror stories about the far-Right in the erstwhile communist country. Worse, Ukraine descended into chaos, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And just like that, another part of the world went off my travel grid.

Soon, Africa would be another casualty. (If you haven’t at least dreamt of Africa, you aren’t a traveller.) From the great white sharks in the waters off Cape Town to the wildlife at the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti national park, and the historical realm of Timbuktu, there is much about this erstwhile dark continent that sets my heart soaring. So when I got married a few years ago, we decided that Africa should be our next destination. We thought of visiting Kenya, South Africa, and Botswana. But, as we planned, Kenya’s intervention in neighbouring Somalia grew, bringing with it terror attacks and kidnappings. In Mali’s Timbuktu, extremists razed ancient structures and burnt priceless ancient scrolls. So we postponed Africa, settling instead for the pristine waters of Maldives.

The paths we forged through land and sea to discover one another, to build bridges, and unite for a better future, are closing, and all we may be left to explore is our own backyard.

“What about Turkey,” I asked my wife a month ago. Turkey has been suffering from the sparks of the civil war in neighbouring Syria, so as much as I yearned for Ottoman history and Beyti kebabs, I was apprehensive. Until a friend put it in perspective: “At this rate, you can forget about beer in Belgium and crepes in France.” So, I did some research on Turkey. I found out that tourism numbers were down, thereby bringing in great discounts. While a vacation combining Turkey, Greece, and Italy would be an orgasm in history tourism, we decided to focus on the first country given our finances. We dived into the itinerary – the rich history of Istanbul, the beaches of Antalya, and the cave-dwellings of Cappadocia. But, as it happens so often these days, an attack at Istanbul airport followed by one look at the faces of my in-laws, put paid to the plans.

I haven’t made any plans to visit Dhaka, but that for now it is off the map. As is Jakarta, Tunis, and maybe even Munich and Rio with both cities on a terror alert. There’s no denying it, the map of the restless traveller has got smaller. Terrorism, not tourism, is making our choices.

Yes, you can make your way to Cambodia if Egypt is out of bounds. If violence rears its ugly head in Turkey, you can instead enjoy the beaches of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. And if you are missing out on Russian history, maybe you will find solace in the lost city of Bagan, Myanmar. There are always countries left over, there are always choices, and the traveller will always have a pretty place to halt for a cup of coffee. But for me, it’s not just the loss of the destination but all that gets lost with it, as a new blood-soaked history is written over a rich, cultured past.

The ruins of Palmyra in Syria, and the Bamiyan Buddhas are lost forever. The joy of soaking in the history of Carthage at the Bardo museum in Tunisia may never be mine. And maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the great cradle of civilisation we now call Iraq is lost forever. I will, one day, see the replica of the Ishtar Gate at a museum in Berlin, but I will never feel the aura of King Nebuchadnezzar II at the place where the gate once stood in ancient Babylon. If you add senseless rivalry to the travel barriers that terrorism has already erected, we may be robbed of so much more – for instance, the chance to revisit Slavic history and its rich interaction with Western Europe in and around Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia. The world is getting more fortified with borders, some real and others built on fear.

Borders have always existed and so has political conflict. We had a bifurcation in Germany, communist insurgencies in Peru and Colombia, counter-communist movements in Spain and Chile, and trouble in the Northern Ireland. But, the world eventually brought down barriers like the Berlin Wall. Europe got closer, conflicts eased, and the Iron Curtain fell. For some years, the future appeared bright. That light is now being slowly dimmed by the fear of terrorism, reignited rivalries, leaders calling for walls, referendums calling for walkouts. The borders of today are vague in physical form, yet more definite in the human mind. Even in Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, two Frenchmen – Dominique Lapierre and Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini  – managed to travel the length and breadth of the country. But not today. The paths we forged through land and sea to discover one another, to build bridges, and unite for a better future, are closing, and all we may be left to explore is our own backyard.

For now, the only place I want to travel to is back in time.