By Shivam Sharma Jun. 05, 2017
I spent a fortnight in the wild working in a paddy field, catching fish with my bare hands, building a raft, and cooking my own food. And I survived it all without tweeting about it.
“So, where are you from?”
It’s a question that always flummoxes me. I was born in a nondescript town in UP called Nanpara along the Nepal border. Then I moved on to live in Bahraich, Lakhimpur, Sitapur, Mailani, Moradabad, Ghaziabad, Mumbai, Nagpur, Kolkata, and now Pune. My father believes in moving forward professionally even if that meant moving towns every year. For me, travelling was not a choice. It was how we lived.
Every two years however, we travelled for a break, and it came in the form of the almost mythical LTC. As a child, the term LTC was magical; uttering it meant you would be transported into a new part of India with new places to see and new comics to read on the train journeys along the way. (I learned what the abbreviation actually meant once I grew up and got a job. LTC has lost its magic now, but then that’s what growing up is all about… Losing the magic.)
LTC travel meant living in comfortable hotels, checking out the sights, cribbing about going to the temples, coming back and fighting over who got the control of the hotel TV remote. I think it was this idea of travel that every middle-class kid in the ’90s grew up with.
It was only when I signed up for The Real High, hitting the road in a Nissan Terrano, that I realised that I hadn’t really travelled. All I’d done prior to this was taken holidays.
Holidays are vastly different from travel. Holidays are all about being in a comfort zone and a cocoon of safety without any scope for anything to go haywire or off the plan. During a holiday, your biggest concern is, “Who has the hotel keys?”
Over the course of a few days, I went from a life of “Where should I order food from?” to “I guess I can survive on a bottle of water rationed among six people on a three-hour trek.”
Travelling, on the other hand, is exploration. Not only of a geographical space but of your own mind, and your own possibilities. There is no exploration in a hotel, except that of a buffet. Exploration is what happens when you’re in nature, living under the sun and sleeping under the stars. It is what happens when you live without mobile or internet connectivity. It is what happens when you have to pitch your own tent, fight mosquitoes and leeches, live in a local tribal house, get thoroughly lost, and do your business out in the open.
I had read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in 2007 and the life of Christopher McCandless had captivated me. With my history of laziness and procrastination, I never really acted upon the insights from the book, although I did title my first blog “The Supertramp Diaries”. It was only while doing The Real High that I really began to understand McCandless.
The Real High is a web-series that follows six of us city slickers, people addicted to the ease of the civilised world, transplanted into a forest clearing in Arunachal Pradesh’s magical Ziro Valley. Of course it was supposed to be a journey of self-discovery, but the bigger challenge that we faced was of survival itself – and how not to be dependent on anyone else for essentials like food, water, and fire. Forever surrounded by the comforts of the city, I learnt over a fortnight, the value of a hundred rupees and the effort it takes to make an honest living.
My time on the show also kickstarted a process of unlearning and shaking off the city. Heretofore, my exposure to the elements was limited to riding my bike during the rain. In Ziro, despite the material comforts that an SUV like Nissan Terrano can offer us, I realised what it really means to be at the mercy of the elements and what my own physical and mental limits are.
They didn’t particularly extend very far – and I was ready to give up right at the beginning. I didn’t think that the first hurdle that I’d have to overcome would involve creepy crawlies. My maiden encounter with leeches left me shaken. I was so afraid that I was unable to walk a few steps without checking my legs and shoes. I was consumed with total paranoia of a kind I’ve never experienced before. On the very first day, my instinct was to go to the nearest town and rent a hotel room, to get back to the feeling of familiarity. It was the easiest thing to do but I chose to stay and push further on – if only to prevent the embarrassment of being an early quitter.
Once I made the decision, the next few days were a completely different story. Very soon I got used to battling the creatures and by the third day, the fear that had enveloped me a few days ago was gone. There was Odomos to tackle the bugs, salt for the leeches, and a pocket-knife to cut the bamboo.
Over the course of a few days, I went from a life of “Where should I order food from?” to “I guess I can survive on a bottle of water rationed among six people on a three-hour trek.” From “Who has the hotel keys?” to “Will I get to sleep tonight?” From “Can I finish this last episode of Rick and Morty before going to work?” to “How often should I use my torch to check for insects in the tent so that the battery lasts the whole night?”
I worked in a paddy field, caught fish with my bare hands, built a raft, lived with the locals, lazed in a hammock in the middle of the jungle, and cooked my own food. And I survived it all without constantly tweeting about it. As a smartphone and internet meme addict, I learnt for the first time to take a break. To let go. This was my Vipassana.
The wild seems hostile to us sitting in our cushy homes but once I made friends with it, the rewards outweighed the effort by far. I understood that we come from the wild; it has been the home of our ancestors but I had only been touching its periphery all my life, never venturing deeper into its heart. It gave me a kind of high that I have never experienced even at the hottest pubs or the coolest parties. Prior to my time in Arunachal, I realised I could barely count on five fingers the “new” experiences I’d had in the last six months. And now, I could talk for hours and hours about the fortnight I spent in the wild.
So now when people ask me, “So, where are you from,” I tell them to hold that thought. I think I’ve just about begun to find the answer.
The Real High is presented by Arunachal Pradesh Tourism and driven by Nissan #SmarterBolder. The first episode streams on arre.co.in on Saturday June 10.
Shivam perpetually resides in nostalgia and makes YouTube videos based on Hindi and Urdu poetry at The Mansarovar Project. He is @GhantaGuy on Twitter.