Who is an explorer?

In July 2016, I embarked on a journey that took me across Africa, Americas and parts of Asia. The first leg of the journey took 21 months. The second leg was cut short almost a year into the travels due to the outbreak of COVID. During these months, I spent a lot of time understanding people, cultures and societies. I felt like a student, hungry to learn again. In my book, the Journey to Infinity, the first lesson I embraced was to ‘Be curious’. It helped me a lot in those months.

But I was just a traveller. It is not a bad thing to be a traveller in the modern world. Millions do so. Some have established themselves as influencers on social media. A traveller is one who travels to a place for a defined set period of time with a purpose. This could be a holiday or a sponsored trip or even a backpacking journey. You go to a country – generally experience the highlights and then go back to your life again. Some backpackers go beyond the highlights (like I did) and experience more depth in a culture, a country and a society. They are the ones, who form the bridge between a traveller and an explorer. Most people travel. Very few explore. Exploring, as I would define it, is going beyond the highlights and immersing oneself in the culture and the society. It is not just about taking photographs of the pyramids of Giza. It also includes understanding the dynastic cultures of the Pharaohs but not limiting oneself to Ancient Egypt. It is not just about experiencing the African safari – it is also learning about the touch points of the safari industry. Exploring is a life choice not an activity. Exploring is a mindset which is congruent to one’s self. Travel is an act done over a two week break. Therefore, there are aspects to exploration, which makes it different to travelling.

The first and the most important aspect of exploration is that exploration is as academic as it is practical. One breathes and lives the idea of being an explorer every day of one’s life. If you are fascinated by the arts of the world, you put in the time to study  art through books, documentaries etc. If you care deeply about wine, you immerse yourself in wine and make it an integral part of your life. It is not an afterthought. It is core to your life. Having said that, one can learn as much through books, videos and podcasts but if one doesn’t use that knowledge to immerse into a culture then one hasn’t really done justice to explorations. It is no point knowing the history of India and having opinions on modern day Indian politics if one just restricts travels to India to the Taj Mahal and the palaces of Rajasthan. This needs intense engagement with the world. On the academic side, it requires serious commitment to learning and seeking out resources. It requires one to be, almost, a full time student of the world or the particular interest. On the practical side, it requires serious commitment and resources to execute. There is so much to experience – and that takes time.

The second aspect of exploration is Time. Travelling two week a year on vacation, as most would do, means for the rest of the year you are not experiencing a place, a culture or an interest. One cannot explore in two weeks. It requires, depending on the country, weeks to even a couple of years. I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka and for a small country like Sri Lanka it was enough. It gave me a deep perspective of the country. Three weeks wouldn’t be enough for a diverse country such as Italy. I would argue a country of Italy requires at least two months. One can easily extrapolate to the world and one can easily see that being a world explorer is a lifestyle choice, possibly a full time job. It is not easy at all in the modern world. Consider the idea of exploring food. If you really want to get a sense of, let’s say, rice culture around the world, two weeks every year can work if that’s all you do for a decade or even more. Clearly, you need a lot of time to explore rice culture around the world. It demands singular focus which effectively means serious commitment and time.

The third aspect of exploration is boundaries. It is impossible to see everything and do everything in a country. Every country has a lot going on – festivities, historical events, food, regions, micro cultures, natural worlds etc. One can easily spend months in a country to get a deeper glimpse but may not be enough for a complete experience. Consider Italy – the country is different in summer and in the winter. That itself is six months. Add the months of spring and autumn and one would need at least a year in Italy. Add festivals and wine and one can see that one might need a couple of years to really appreciate modern day and historical Italy. Therefore to explore in depth  about anything or any place, one needs to draw boundaries and make conscious choices and sacrifices to enable those boundaries.

The element of boundaries links up nicely to the final aspect of exploration – niche. One can choose to specialise in certain aspects of a culture. One can focus on art or wine or food or cities. You don’t need to be in Italy for a couple of years if you only care about wine. You can cover the country in two or three summers (though it would be quite exhausting). Niche can help balance time and resources while making it a lot more realistic to be an explorer.

The question remains: Are the above aspects not applicable to a traveller?

I argue in principle yes but once you peel the surface layers, you will find a traveller wanting. Most travellers want to enjoy the highlights without caring too much about background knowledge. Most travellers want to spend a couple of days in a place and some backpackers, though on a gap year, hardly spend time in a country, as they want to cover the world as much as possible. Most folks want to try everything or atleast do all the popular activities – very few create boundaries and niches to enjoy themselves. If you are in Rome, you want to cover as much. Very few fly to Rome for the food without caring much about the history. And if you care about food and history, then you need two weeks which most people don’t have (two weeks in any city is a lot for many! – most try to squeeze in a few locations within a two week holiday) and therefore you squeeze in a bit of everything over a weekend trip. Once again, nothing wrong with this approach but these are travellers not explorers.

Many might disagree with my perspective. That’s ok. I can deal with that. After all, none of my views are set in stone for everyone to accept.

So there we have it. From my experience, I consider being an explorer as

  1. Being very academic and practical about experiences
  2. Spending substantial amount of time in a region/country compared to an average holidaymaker
  3. Setting boundaries on how much one wants to explore
  4. Developing a niche to balance time and multi-dimensionality of a country

‘Jack’ of all trades is a possibility only if one can increase the amount of time and resources allocated to exploration. You have to be a full time explorer, a nomad to go both broad and deep. These folks are the one, who I consider as true nomads, with each having been on the road for decades. They are my heroes

  1. Marco Polo (Italian, 16th century)
  2. Mohammed Ibn Buttatah (Moroccon, 13th century)
  3. Gunther (German, 1908s)

From my travel experiences, I consider myself as ‘Jack’ of all trades. I love Culture, Art, History, Politics, Food, Wildlife, Nature and Hikes. That is a lot to cover. I have spent countless hours learning about each genre in as much depth as possible. Yet I need to do more – a lot more. It demands complete commitment and singular focus if I want to become an explorer. I have to make it my life – I have to become a nomad.

Today, I am in the process of pivoting my life to be a nomad with a potential base in India. I have been on the road since 2016 and post COVID, at some point in the near future, I hope to explore full time. I have loved being a traveller, a holidaymaker, a backpacker (as a bridge to explorations) but I am now ready to move beyond.

I am excited to be an explorer.

The universe awaits and I cannot wait to embrace it again.

And maybe join my heroes in their singular focus to explore our world.

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