Peta Mathias: We follow a calling

Peta Mathias in India.
Peta Mathias in India.

We travel initially to lose ourselves and next to find ourselves - to travel is to put yourself outside your comfort zone - it cracks you open and pushes you up against the wall. Travelling is in fact like being in love - you're under the influence. The normal rules don't apply . . . you're more open, more tolerant, more reckless. Like love, it's about surrender rather than conquest, and is less to do with countries and more to do with stretching your boundaries and expanding on what you believe is "normal". And if you're flying, of course, it provides a unique opportunity to eat revolting food, meet harmless lunatics and sit doing nothing.

Bruce Chatwin called it horreur du domicile, this need to be nomadic that is both a compulsion to wander and a compulsion to return. All human beings have the wandering characteristic genetically inherited from vegetarian primates, just as they have an emotional need, which comes from carnivores, for a base or port. But a nomad is not a person who wanders aimlessly from place to place; au contraire, it is a person who follows prescribed paths, someone who is following a calling, be it professional, spiritual or pastoral.

Pascal said that all man's unhappiness stemmed from a single cause, his inability to remain quietly in a room. We seem to need change as we need the air we breathe, because without it our brains and bodies rot. Encephalographs of travellers' brains show that change stimulates the brain rhythms, bringing a sense of well-being and a purpose in life.

The way you experience a country is also coloured by the mode of transport you take, the guide you use, where you stay, the weather, what you eat and the psychological baggage you carry with you - your hopes, fears, prejudices and plans. Travel spins you around in two ways at once - it shows you the sights and values and issues that you may ordinarily ignore; but it also and more profoundly, shows you all the parts of yourself that may otherwise go unexamined.

A tour to a challenging destination like India, for example, makes some of my clients go completely troppo. For a lot of people it's like being in hospital for the first time - the stress of culture shock just brings about a personality change. I don't understand why more travellers are not alcoholics actually and prescription drugs don't seem adequate somehow.

Then of course there's the periodic loneliness or disappointment in a place that one isn't expecting. There's no such thing as a wonderful, beautiful or moving destination. There is only your reaction and relationship to it that makes it worthwhile or not.

I never suffer from culture shock because from the age of 10 onwards, I was put on a plane on my own to visit my mother's family in Australia. I vomited all the way over and all the way back, my feet and calves doubled and I frequently left the aircraft in a wheelchair. Nevertheless I turned into a nomad and travel writer.

The best way to access a culture, in my opinion, is through its cuisine. From birth to death, food, love and wellbeing go hand in hand.

Gastronomic travel is a romantic activity that has to do with recalling a world that has vanished. Behind every recipe is a story of local traditions and daily life in villages and towns. Recipes are about ancestral memories and looking back and holding on to old cultures - they are profoundly about identity. Teaching my clients traditional dishes is important to me because they are a link with the past, a celebration of roots, a symbol of continuity. They are that part of a culture which survives the longest, kept up even when clothing, music and language have been abandoned.

Really, the biggest change that has occurred in all my years of travelling is that now, it takes a long time to move around, because of the teeth-grindingly high security due to worldwide terrorism.

Travel checklist

1 Leave all your preconceptions behind.
2 Pack your suitcase, take half the stuff out then lock the suitcase.
3 Take a notebook and write in it - it attracts people to you and you will never be lonely.
4 Pack ear plugs, a sleep mask and sleeping pills for desperate moments. Killing someone who snores is not murder - it's self-defence.
5 Steam iron your clothes by hanging them in the shower, turning it on to very hot for 10 mins and closing the bathroom door.
6 Always carry diarrhoea pills and wet-wipes - it's too boring to try and find a chemist and usually too late, if you get my drift.

Lessons Learned
● Try to be an ethical traveller - drop the luxury hotels and get on down with the people. It's not about the thread count of the sheets, it's about sharing the love.
● Be fearless but not reckless.
● There is no occasion, whether it be the desert or the jungle, at which it is inappropriate to wear lipstick.
● It doesn't matter where you are going or for how long - you only need one suitcase.

Peta Mathias' new book, Never Put All Your Eggs in One Bastard, is out now (Random House, RRP $40). Join her for a live show at SKYCITY Theatre, Auckland, Saturday, November 19, 7.30pm. Tickets via ticketek.co.nz

- Spy.co.nz

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