Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
Travel in cyber space
I am not in general a restless spirit, giving in to a need for constant change. But travel is a virtual passion with me and I blame it on the malaise caused by the bite of the travel bug. Most who suffer from it know of the compulsions that prod one ever so often to pack a suitcase, say a lot of good-byes and take off to yet another place on the planet. Like any other addiction this too is an urge that takes no denial. Often while trekking through the Himalayas in various stages of exhaustion, or while sweating it out inside the musty halls of temples in South India or even more simply while waiting at crowded airports to catch a flight to foreign lands I have often rued this obsession of mine. For it does not allow me to be content with the simple pleasures of relaxing forever in the comfort of my home.
But I have suddenly discovered a less exhausting but equally soul-satisfying form of travel. This new craze of mine is of a different genre altogether. I could call it the cyber travel bug or more simply travelling on the Net. The sheer possibility of enjoying a little of the excitement of travelling without the attendant physical discomforts makes this a truly attractive proposition. A fascinating experience that takes up hours of my time but leaves a trail of satisfaction inside.
I have a confession to make. I am not an expert on the Internet or even at handling a computer. Indeed like many in my age group I have this slight feeling of inadequacy whenever faced by the monitor and at the slightest problem hurriedly send an SOS to my children. Seeing them solve hitches with a few wrist movements on the key board and an air of "oh, how simple" does nothing for my self esteem.
The Internet then seemed even more formidable until the need to communicate on a daily basis with my son stepping onto American shores brought mental barriers down. For after all, reams of prose and poetry have been written on the courage of a mother's love. Once the first step was made and an e-mail address established, in true Nehruvian fashion I started my "letters to a son" and learnt to refer to the Internet as the "net".
If motherly love and all that made me take the first step on the Net, all it needed was a trip to Australia for the giant leap onto the unknown shores of "travel on the net". Impatient with a preoccupied travel agent, who eternally waited for replies to faxes, I took my daughter's advice to check out the net and plunged headlong into an unbelievable wealth of information.
Not that all this information is available only on the net. Travel books, travel agents and varied government and non-government bodies do share similar information. What enticed me was the sheer ease of getting all this and more with the click of a mouse and in the comfort of my home. As I learnt to weave my way through and distinguish between the irrelevant and the useful, I discovered the pleasures of planning a total trip unaided by my travel agent. Different websites kept me informed of the weather to be expected on the days of my stay and the schedule of the flights that took off to my planned destinations. I checked varied accommodation, helped on by photographs and textual comments. I found recommended vegetarian restaurants, shopping lists and a total picture of the country I planned to visit. Every e-mail I sent in connection with my trip received an immediate response.
Today I would like to believe that the net helped make my trip more cost effective. For I found this fabulous apartment on the Gold Coast that was giving four nights for the price of two for just that week, and an airline that offered a package of an air ticket plus three nights stay at Cairns at a bargain rate. I could compare different tour packages to the Great Barrier Reef and decide on the best value for money.
One does wonder whether finally the travel agent too would have offered me an equally good deal but it is really not too relevant. For what mattered to me was that all this experience proved a confidence booster and had the added benefit of launching me on my new adventure - my "affaire de le Cyber travel".
It has opened out a whole new world before me - the world of travel on the World Wide Web full of sites. Whenever the familiar scenes of crowded, dirty Chennai brings on a feeling of ennui, all it needs is a click on the mouse, a browse through the various pages that open out and fabulous tourist resorts are at my fingertips. To many of us, armchair travelling is always a big fascination and the boom in TV channels has now brought more visually appealing and textually better packaged versions of it into our homes. But the greatest appeal of the Net is the interaction it allows. Rather than be a mere passive observer, I decide what I am going to search for. Most photographic companies have beautiful photographs on the Net that uplift the worst depression caused by hours spent in weaving through traffic jams. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than visit the exotic spots of the world? Quite often I decide the place that I shall soon visit when finances and time permit and then get onto working it all out in advance.
For the World Wide Web has made it so simple to plan a trip. If one were not sure which website to use any search engine would help. The more definite the question, the easier to get the information. Most countries of the world have very detailed websites that give all necessary information for the casual or business traveller: history, tourist spots, museums, art, culture, cuisine, weather graphs, to name a few - in effect the entire works. Every major airline too has a site and detailed information on flights and timings made available. There are good sites that give information on all available accommodation to suit different budgets. Many of these hotels have home pages with photographs, location, rates and facilities all neatly put together making comparisons possible. Quite often bargains are floating around on the net if one gets lucky. Do we want tours?
Tour companies do have a site and are willing to give information besides making the relevant bookings. All it needs to make these varied bookings is an acceptable credit card. It came as a pleasant surprise to stumble on the Spanish railway web site and find details of trains to every destination within the country with the timings and the rates. An e-mail sent to the site got an instant reply. With so much information already available and the popularity of travel sites on the web growing constantly, all that limits access to travel arrangements is time.
Once all arrangements have been made through the web, one is ready to travel. If, however, all this exercise was just wishful thinking and mere cybertravel, what an exciting way of getting away from it all for a brief while.
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