We started India 360 during April 2017 and drew the curtain down during May 2017, despite not having seen every inch of the country. It was a time-bound experiment to see how much of the country we could travel in a year and our trip already overran by a full month. One thing that fuelled us and aided us to keep going was a very important factor which never flagged throughout the trip despite some moments of discouragement. Our supreme FITNESS.
Why be physically fit for travel, a leisure?
Posters show couples laying on sand beaches or hammocks, wearing sun glasses and beach clothes, sipping on exotic drinks and smiling in bliss. Or they show travellers sipping tea while it snows on icy peaks in the background. Posters and ads show travelling as the most relaxing thing to do. After months of office work and stress, travel indeed unwinds the mind. But trust me, travel can get very stressful and fatiguing for the body. Long term travel can be stressful for the mind too, but we’ll see that later. We want to point out why travel can get you physically drained or even ill by the time you get to your hammock and pinacolada.
- You travel so that you can be outdoors most of the time and explore. That means you expose yourself to more dust, more sun, severe cold or are in direct contact with rain or snow more often than you are in your hometown. Extreme weather is a certainty if you have signed up for a Himalayan trek or some adventure sport. But weather swings are also surprisingly possible if you just spend a day in a big city shuttling between parks, museums, castles, monuments, convention centres, theatres, movies and the like. We spent as much time under the Delhi & Chandigarh urban sun as we did under the Himachal mountain sun. Your physical tolerance and resilience will be tested fully and you can get sick if your immunity isn’t strong.
- You have spent years having Kulcha at Connaught place, Pav Bhaji at Juhu or Idli at Saravana Bhavan. But now you find yourself 2000 km away from your home’s kitchen. You no longer have the option of having your regional food. You are exposed to cuisine totally different from what you are used to. Your tongue has to adjust and your stomach has to handle the assault of spices in a different combination. The place you are eating from may not be hygienic. The organs in charge of your digestion need to work at their peak potential, otherwise you may get sick.
- Not every town is connected with airports, metro rail and BRTS buses. In the Himalayas, you may have to sit in buses for 10+ hours, travelling over 300km on a single day, even having to sleep seated on an upright bus seat, while the bus bounces on rocky, tightly winding, steep roads. Buses often get delayed due to weather or traffic conditions. You may find yourself spending the night at the bus stop, having to sleep on a bench or on the concrete platform of the railway station, with your train 5 hours away. Your neck, back, shoulders and legs will take a lot of abuse. Your body needs to be strong and may need to work with very little sleep on such days.
- Sometimes the erratic transport timings may mean that you end up at places late and miss connecting buses or trains. Sometimes services get cancelled due to weather or broken roads. Sometimes vehicles break down in front of your eyes. Sometimes two places are simply not connected by vehicles. And sometimes, only taxis are available and they are too expensive. In such situations, you are left with no situation but to walk on and on until you either reach your destination or until someone on his/her own vehicle agrees to offer you a lift. You need a very high stamina and your legs should be trained for walking long distances. Roads can be really long and straight or they can be steep and arduous.
Meanwhile, hotel owners and assistants always get a sadistic pleasure out of making me walk upto the farthest room at the highest floor of their hotels / guest houses. God only knows why if someone says that a room is available in their guest house, it is always the farthest and the top-most room at their establishment! In fact, the bigger and heavier your backpack, the higher the floor they want to take you to! Your stair-climbing should be in good shape. Forget about elevators in states like Uttarakhand, where buildings are rural and elevators are still not widespread. What’s more? They are used to ascending slopes everyday and expect you to effortlessly do the same.
- Motion sickness patients are in for some roughening up, especially if travelling long and far on highways filled with hairpin bends. You need to take an assortment of sickness inducing transport, over unpredictably rocky and winding roads. Expect some gut torture.
- Wearing the same clothes more often than you are used to, especially without being able to wash them as often as you would like can lead to skin ailments such as rashes and sores. The fact that you cannot take a shower everyday does not help either. You need to find a way to keep your body clean by using wet tissues, wet towels or something similar until you can take your next shower.
- Finally, you can always drive on your own and pace your journey as you wish. Take your own vehicle or borrow one from a rental. But beware. You may have to end up driving for several hundreds of kilometres over several hours. You need to be awake and alert. The first few kilometres seem like bliss as you feel like the master of your destiny. Then boredom, distraction and fatigue set in like a lengthening shadow. You need to sit upright for long and need to be alert for perils on the road. You need to have rested really well the previous night. If you are driving at night, then apart from the danger of drifting off, you need to be ready for narrow roads, lack of street lights, nastily surprising bumpers and potholes and high, bright beams of headlight from the oncoming vehicles. Your stamina and patience will be tested as far as they can stretch.
- With all this happening, you need to make sure that you are nourished properly and are sleeping well. It is hard to stick to a fixed schedule for meals and sleep like you do in your hometown, but you need to make it happen.
Why build fitness before you start your travel
It is possible to start travelling when you are not physically fit enough. I have seen people and heard stories about unfit travellers feeling weak, complaining, crying and moving grudgingly during the first ten days of travel and then coming around to enjoy it when their body builds up fitness over time. I have seen people sign up for treks in high altitude without having trekked anywhere all their lives. They struggle with symptoms, fatigue and a lack of motivation for a couple of days. Many persist and have the time of their lives by the time they are done. These stories with their 180 degree plot twists sound fantastic and inspiring.
However, not every story is a success. Enthusiastic would-be-trekkers suffer from altitude sickness and return, not having completed what they travelled so far for and paid so much for. People wear their legs out after walking several hours, suffer from blisters or get sprains.Food is another cause of illness, with certain cuisines not agreeing with the patient’s stomach or other issues related to unclean water or hygienic problems. Lack of sleep can trigger cascading effects such as impaired performance, delayed reactions and irritability. This is turn leads to stress.
The point of travel is to enjoy every moment and it would be a waste to painfully survive the first few days of a life-changing journey. I would like to think of travelling as a lifestyle. So travelling is to be introduced into our system just like any lifestyle change. Gradually, by building habits. If you are going to be in the mountains, then I suggest workouts like running, bicycling and staircase climbing for a month before you start travelling. At least for a week before you set out.
You also need to get into the habit of accepting the lack of Internet. This seems like a trivial annoyance, but for someone who is addicted to social media, not having Internet all of a sudden can lead to stress, irritability and withdrawal symptoms. It will be a good practice to gradually limit Internet usage until you are okay with using it for just two hours every day. On the other hand, you can get into the habit of writing things in a notebook everyday (like a daily travel journal).
While you travel
Getting good sleep is the single most important thing while you travel. Too little sleep will not allow your body to recover from the strains of travelling. Personally, I need 5-6 hours of sleep every day, but most people seem to need 7-8. Try to clock in that much without cheating. You can break sleep sessions into a night’s sleep and a siesta if that is possible. While travelling, it is very easy to get carried away and party into the night. But watch your sleep very closely. You need to know when to stop, especially if your next day’s travel starts very early in the morning.
Food is another important factor to watch. Here is the common assumption. Food from local roadside or small local outlets is looked down upon as unhealthy, while food from chain restaurants or premium ones is seen as healthy. However I would like to flip this idea. When I go to a roadside or a small outlet where the kitchen is visible, I can see the cook preparing the food in front of me. I know that whole wheat is being used, how much sugar or salt and what masala is being put in and how much heat / oil is being applied. This is not the case with a chain outlet, where the food is being prepared away from your sight. You have no idea what goes in and you end up trusting the goodwill of the restaurant or someone’s recommendation. Personally, I like to eat from places where I can see what is being cooked and how it’s done.
It is important to know your energy and time limits. A place like Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi can offer hundreds of interesting places, but you may not have enough days to spend in them, maybe due to the schedule of your holiday or your budget. The result is that you try to cram too many places in a day. Don’t! Tight schedules stress you out by making you see the watch again and again instead of enjoying and being present. Secondly, the rapid commutes will tire you out. It is better to enjoy one or two places on a single day, enjoying every step, every sight, sound, fragrance, ambience and history that a place has to offer. Remember, cities have been around for centuries, rivers for millions of years and mountains for billions. They aren’t going anywhere. You can always plan an encore trip later. After all, you too have plenty of years here. My tip would be to use a fantastic app like TripAdvisor to check places of interest in a city. They have categories, ranks and reviews to help you decide.
How much you pack and carry can affect your mobility. A good backpack with good shoulder and back supports and with only as much luggage as you need is hardly noticeable as you zip through a city on your feet. However multiple bags with too much weight can drag you down and you won’t enjoy your trip.
Gaining & maintaining fitness for travel is not difficult if you follow a system. However, approaching your travel without a system is too hard on your health and fitness. This can mean the difference between your trip being a pleasure or an ordeal. So, travel smart and travel fit.