Catching the midnight sun of the Arctic circle from Norway, trying to stay afloat in the Drake passage where the waters of three oceans combine and discovering the beauty of the Northern lights — all this from the diary of an 82-year-old globetrotter.
Having travelled the length and breadth of India and to 90 countries, a shorter list would be to ask Mumbai-based Arun Narayan Sabnis to list the places he is yet to visit. He rattles off, “Siberia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uganda to see the gorillas in their natural habitats, Tanzania for the wildlife safari, Ukraine — the erstwhile Russian territory, Columbia, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”
For any travel junkie, he suggests visiting Switzerland and Austria, which are his top two favourite places on Earth. And without probing further, he speaks of his love for Iceland and its polar opposite ambience. “This unusual place is the youngest country — where an island surfaced because of a volcano in the Atlantic ocean only about 700 years ago. The whole country is made of lava fields with several volcanoes erupting in its tiny islands. They have glaciers and lakes full of floating icebergs too. Its soil is so warm that they don’t have agriculture there. The only thing you can grow is the grass that sheep graze on, so you have an entire country just surviving on sheep meat.”
You can hear the fascination in this vegetarian’s voice, who in his 70s cut through thick Antarctic ice to make it to the South Pole on the dietary restrictions of leftover bread and some fruit.
Speaking to Arun feels much like a lesson in Geography, but he fondly recalls his own teacher. “I studied in a school in Belgaum [Karnataka]. My Geography teacher often came to school in tattered clothes or a dhoti and a black cap. He probably never left the periphery of our village, but he would teach us Geography as if he had gone around the world. In the ’40s, travel by train was difficult, so what’s to say about planes and ships? But he would invent stories like how Vasco da Gama came from Portugal via the Cape of Good Hope to Goa. So, when I went to the Cape of Good Hope, I thought my geography teacher was by my side and could visualise Vasco da Gama’s ship making a turn towards India.” You can still hear the emotion in this 82-year-old’s voice.
So what got him interested in travel? I’m glad you asked.
For his birthday, Arun’s granddaughter and ‘Gone Game’ actor, Shriya Pilgaonkar, put out a video on social media titled ‘Around the world with Ajoba’. The 10-minute film captures a kaleidoscope of moments from Arun’s travel past.
“He is my maternal grandfather,” says Shriya, adding, “In the last five years, I understood how determined ajoba [grandfather] was to complete a target. When he started travelling, this wasn’t about hitting a number. A few years ago, he was admitted to the hospital, and that’s when he shared with me that it was my great-grandfather’s dream to visit Pompei [Italy].”
A Black and White Pompei
Vowing to take him to Pompei when he gets better, Shriya and her ajoba travelled to Iceland in 2015, after which she took him on a Mediterranean cruise, hitting all the places on her ajoba’s list, starting in Naples and Pompei in Italy, Barcelona in Spain and then Malta in 2016.
But Arun’s dream of travelling to Pompei started with a memory of his “strict, disciplinarian and authoritarian” father. “I don’t remember my father talking to me except for interrogating me. I was taught never to question him,” says Arun.
He adds, “I returned to Nashik when I completed my Master of Arts. One day, I went through his cupboard against my father’s instructions and found very old travel pamphlets and postcards of Hyderabad and Kolkata. There was also a black and white picture postcard book of Pompei. It was then that my father returned from the office and asked me what I was doing. But instead of shouting at me, he told me of his dreams of travel that he couldn’t fulfil. This was the first time he didn’t interrogate me.”
“At 23, I realised that I had misjudged my father,” he says.
So when Arun finally got to Italy, he tells me how much he enjoyed the sights and “authentic Italian vegetarian cuisine”. “We stayed in a homestay right in the heart of Rome and enjoyed authentic pizzas and spaghetti.”
But his domestic travels started early on in the ’80s when after retirement, he did the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra and trekked over Om Parvat in his 60s.
“In the ’80s, as soon as the new year arrived, I used to mark the short breaks and long breaks on my calendar and fill it with details of my domestic travels,” he says.
“For the first 10-12 years of my career, I was a psychology and logic studies teacher in undergraduate and graduate school. I was later selected by the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) to teach in a Goa government college and even became the principal of a college later on,” he says, adding that he later joined CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra), an undertaking of the Maharashtra government tasked with setting up a city across the harbour — Navi Mumbai.
“So I changed over from teaching to become an estate manager, a marketing manager and a personal manager. I was with CIDCO for 25 years. After which I retired at the age of 55 in 1995,” he says. But he continued as a consultant for the next five years.
His consultancy fees and dividends invested in mutual funds and SIPs, he says, is what contributed towards his travelling expenses. “Being in the real estate market, I bought and sold flats and made money from there too because capital gains weren’t taxed as heavily,” he says.
“By that age, I had already fulfilled my family responsibilities of marrying off my daughter, Supriya Pilgaonkar, who became an actress, and my son became a pilot and got married too. So, I had nothing else to do but travel,” he laughs, adding that his son’s pilot perks allowed for parent’s travel allowance too.
By the new millennium, Arun had travelled to most places on his domestic travel list as well as the USA, Europe, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
A Vegetarian’s Plight to the South Pole
An avid reader of encyclopedias, Arun believes in reading up before every trip to understand the people and the place better. “Make your own notes, observations of what you like and what you don’t,” he informs.
Shriya adds, “I got my love for journaling after watching ajoba write in his travel diaries. He writes everything in absolute detail, and I continue to do that too.” On their travels, she says, her ajoba was “100% more informative” than the guides.
His most ‘memorable trip’ was to Antarctica.
“Around 2010-11, I went to the Arctic. I went up to 72° North and enjoyed the midnight sun in Norway. There on 21 June, the sun never sets, so you go at midnight to find the sun on the horizon,” Arun says.
He adds, “I returned on 21 December to see the Northern lights, which are just beautiful streaks of orange, yellow, violet, blue and green lights in the sky. Those lights appear from behind a hill and appear as a flowing river, brightening up the entire sky.”
After his Arctic experience, he decided to head to the South Pole. “I booked my journey through an agent, but I had to find a partner because it cost Rs 8 lakh or 9 lakh for 15 days. A friend of mine—who had accompanied me on my travels on numerous occasions and was eight years older than me, I was about 74 at the time—agreed to come along to Antarctica. Though he was frail, he was a passionate traveller.”
He chuckles as he says, “But I was the only vegetarian on the ship. So I would survive on bread, fruits, salads and whatever vegetables.”
The thrilling journey from the Southern tip of South America, Cape Horn, via Drake passage, where the varying temperatures of the Atlantic, Pacific and the Antarctic converge to become a ‘stormy adventure’.
“I had not travelled on too many voyages. This journey from South America takes about 60 hours, which is absolute hell. The rolling and pitching of the ship are enough to make you sick. It goes up 45° and turns 30°, and then there’s the next wave and so on. This happens 10 to 12 times in one minute. You can’t eat, sleep or drink anything. This was a near-death experience for me,” Arun recalls.
But once you get there, Arun says, Antarctica’s seals, whales, penguins and the ice-covered lands measuring one-and-half times of the USA are sights to behold.
‘Is She Your Girlfriend?’
Growing up watching her ajoba take the time to explore uncharted territories made Shriya develop an admiration for travelling. She calls herself a ‘travel agent’ at heart and has her ajoba to thank for that. “Ajoba once said to me that his ideal plan to travel would be unplanned travel. He is such a planner, but for him to want to experience this shows that age is just a number,” she says.
“What grandparents give you, Google can’t,” says the 32-year-old, adding that the first trip the grandfather-granddaughter duo took was to Rajasthan.
Shriya can’t help gushing about her dear old granddad. “He loves people, places and cultures and is so well-read. He is so curious and is a genuine explorer. He is someone who can strike up a conversation with anyone.”
Her ajoba says, “I love travelling with Shriya because she takes good care of me. She reminds me of the medicines I must take, makes good conversation with me and helps me take good pictures too. Also, she knows a lot about computers and smartphones, so I learn a lot from her about how to handle Instagram and Facebook.”
Recalling a hilarious incident on one of their trips, Arun adds, “On the ship to the Mediterranean, most of them thought that she was my girlfriend (laughs). I guess it is common for them to have a girlfriend less than half your age. But people couldn’t imagine I was travelling with my granddaughter.”
Shriya adds, “I realised that I am so close to my grandparents and that there are a lot of people who don’t have that. So whenever we were roaming around, and people would find out [he was my grandfather], you could see it in their eyes that it was something special they were witnessing.”
Speaking about the film she created, Shriya says she had been filming her ajoba over the past five to six years, and it was during the second lockdown, she decided to create this gift for him. “Life suddenly seemed so fragile,” she says.
“Although COVID restricted his travel plans, I am hoping he will complete his goal of visiting 100 countries, and I definitely want to accompany him,” Shriya, who is attempting to put together a travel podcast and get his travel diary published as a book, asserts.
So what’s this peripatetic wanderer’s advice to young travellers? “If you enjoy travelling, keep an open mind and go with a clean slate. Take in everything like blotting paper that soaks up the spilt ink from a desk,” he signs off.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)