Watching the sun rise over the Arctic Circle from Norway, at midnight. Survive yourself at the Drake Passage, where the waters of the three oceans meet and watch the beauty of the Northern Lights (Polar Lights) up close. Many such things have been written in the diary of 82-year-old Arun Narayan Sabnis.
After traveling to every nook and corner of India, and 90 countries, Mumbai’s Arun Narayan Sabnis is now making a list of places he hasn’t visited yet. He says, “Right now I have to travel to Siberia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan along with Uganda. Where, gorillas are seen in their natural habitat. Also, Tanzania, Ukraine – erstwhile Russian territory, Colombia, Ecuador and Galapagos Islands are yet to be visited for wildlife safaris.”
For travel enthusiasts, he suggests visiting Switzerland and Austria. Both of these are among his favorite places. Also, he talks about his love for Iceland and its polar opposite ambience. He explains, “This unusual place is the youngest country in the world – an island formed by a volcanic eruption in the Atlantic Ocean about 700 years ago. This entire country is made of lava, in whose small islands many volcanoes are erupting. They have glaciers and lakes filled with floating icebergs. Its soil is so hot that nothing is cultivated there. There, you can only grow the grass that the sheep graze there. That’s why this is a country that survives by eating only sheep’s flesh.”
It is quite strange to hear such things from a vegetarian. He completed his journey to the South Pole at the age of 70 with the help of leftover bread and some fruit.
Talking to Arun feels like taking a geography class. He himself remembers his teacher by heart and says, “I studied in a school in Belgaum (Karnataka). My geography teacher, often in torn clothes or dhoti and black cap, used to come to school. He might have never even gone out of our village. But he used to teach us geography as if he had traveled all over the world. In the 40s, traveling by train was also difficult, let alone planes and ships. But he used to teach stories like Vasco da Gama, how he came to Goa from Portugal via Cape of Good Hope, in such a way that when I went to Cape of Good Hope, I felt that my geography teacher was with me. He too can see, with me, Vasco da Gama’s ship turning towards India.” While listening to these things, you can feel the emotions of this 82 year old man.
Why was he so interested in traveling? Arun says I am glad that you asked.
On the occasion of Arun’s birthday, his granddaughter and web series ‘Gone Game’ actress, Shriya Pilgaonkar posted a video titled ‘Around the World with Ajoba’ on social media. This ten minute video contains many beautiful moments related to Arun’s journey.
Shriya says, “She is my maternal grandfather and in the last five years, I understood that Ajoba (Nana) has determined to accomplish each and every goal. When he started traveling, he didn’t think of any number or goal. He was admitted to the hospital a few years back, and that’s when he told me that my great grandfather’s dream was to go to Pompeii (Italy).”
I promised her that after recovery, I would take her to Pompeii. Shriya and her wonder took a trip to Iceland in 2015. After which she also took him on a Mediterranean cruise. Also, he decided to visit all the places on the list of wonders. He started in Italy in Naples and Pompeii, Barcelona and also went to Spain and then Malta in 2016.
But Arun’s dream of traveling to Pompeii began with a memory of his ‘strict, disciplinarian and authoritarian’ father. Arun says, “I don’t remember my father ever talking to me about anything other than making a few inquiries. I was always taught never to question him.”
He further says, “When I returned home from Nashik after completing MA. Then one day I checked his cupboard against my father’s orders. There I found very old travel pamphlets and postcards from Hyderabad and Kolkata. The cupboard also contained a postcard book containing a black and white photograph of Pompeii. Then my father returned from office and asked me what am I doing? But instead of yelling at me, he told me about his travel dreams, which he could not fulfill. It was the first time he had not questioned me.”
“At the age of 23, I realized how much I misunderstood my father,” he says. He explained how much he enjoyed the sightseeing and “vegetarian cuisine of Italy” when Arun finally arrived in Italy. “We stayed at a homestay in Rome and tasted Italian pizza and spaghetti,” he says.
But his journey started after retirement, in the 80s. He first traveled to Kailash Mansarovar and at the age of 60 did trekking on Om Parvat.
“In the 80s, as the new year approached, I used to prepare for short and long trips on the calendar for the whole year,” he says.
He says, “For the first 10-12 years of my career, I used to teach psychology and logic studies to inter school and graduation students. Later, I got selected in UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) and got selected to teach in a government college in Goa and after some time, I became the principal of a college.”
Arun later joined CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra). It is an undertaking of the Government of Maharashtra. Whose task was to establish Navi Mumbai across the port.
He says, “I went from teacher to an estate manager, a marketing manager and a personal manager. I was with CIDCO for 25 years. After which I retired in 1995 at the age of 55. Even after retirement, he continued to work there as a consultant for the next five years.
He says consultancy fees, dividends received from mutual funds and investments in SIPs alone cover his travel expenses. He says, “Being in the real estate market, I bought and sold many flats and made money from there as well.”
Arun explains, “Even before the age of retirement, I had completed my family responsibilities with the marriage of my daughter, actress Supriya Pilgaonkar. My son had also become a pilot and he got married too. So, I had nothing to do except travel.” He laughs and says that the parents get traveling allowance from their son’s pilot allowance.
By the year 2000, Arun had completed most of his domestic travels as well as the United States, Europe, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The plight of a vegetarian in the South Pole
Arun loves to read encyclopedias. Before traveling to any place, he must read about it to better understand the people and place of that place. “Make your own notes for the trip, observe what you like and don’t like,” he says.
Shriya says, “After seeing Ajoba writing in her travel diaries, I also started writing diaries. He writes everything in detail and now I do the same.” She says that during her travels, her job is 100% more knowledgeable than the guides.
His trip to Antarctica was the most memorable.
Arun says, “Around 2010-11, I went to the Arctic. I went 72° north and enjoyed watching the midnight sun over Norway. There the sun does not set on June 21, so people go there at midnight to see the sun in the sky.
He adds, “I went there again on December 21 to see the Northern Lights. On that day there are beautiful streaks of orange, yellow, purple, blue and green light in the sky. That light, seen from behind a hill like a flowing river, illuminates the whole sky.”
After his Arctic experience, he decided to visit the South Pole. He told, “I had booked my journey through an agent. But I had to find a partner, as it cost Rs 8-9 lakh for 15 days. A friend of mine, who has traveled with me many times, is almost eight years older than me. At that time, I was about 74 years old. He agreed to come with me to Antarctica. Although he was a bit weak in health, he was very fond of travelling.
He laughs and says, “However, I was the only vegetarian on the ship. So I had to survive by eating only bread, fruits, salad and vegetables.
The journey to Cape Horn via the Drake Passage in the southern part of South America was extremely thrilling. Where it was a daring task to face the different temperatures of Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic.
Recalling his trip to South America, Arun says, “I don’t travel much during one of my trips. This journey from South America takes about 60 hours, which is like hell. Ships rolling and pitching make you sick. Here the temperature goes above 45 degrees and as soon as the next wave arrives, the temperature comes down to 30 degrees. This happens 10 to 12 times in a minute. You cannot eat or drink or even sleep. It was a near death experience for me.”
Arun said, “But once you get there, you are stunned by the seals, whales, penguins of Antarctica and the ice-covered land that is one and a half times that of the United States.
is she your girlfriend?
Shriya has grown up seeing her wonders. It is because of him that today he has come to know many unseen and unheard places. He also had a passion for traveling because of his passion. She wholeheartedly calls herself a ‘travel agent’ and thanks Ajoba for the same. He said, “Ajoba once told me that the best and memorable journey is without planning. However, he himself travels with great planning. But his mindset and willingness to travel shows that age is just a number for him.”
Shriya, 32, believes, “Google can’t give you what grandparents, grandparents give you.” This great-granddaughter duo had traveled to Rajasthan together for the first time.
Shriya tirelessly talks about her beloved Nanaji and says, “He loves people, places and cultures, he reads a lot. In fact, he is very curious. He is someone who can talk to anyone.”
Ajoba Arun says, “I love traveling with Shriya, as she takes great care of me. She reminds me to take medicine. He talks a lot with me. Also, it helps me to take good pictures. She knows a lot about computers and smartphones, so I keep learning a lot from her about handling Instagram and Facebook.”
Recalling a funny incident from one of his trips, Arun says, “On the ship during a trip to the Mediterranean, most people thought she was my girlfriend (laughs). I think it’s common for them to have girlfriends less than half your age. But when they came to know that I was traveling with my granddaughter, they were surprised.”
Shriya adds, “I am very close to my maternal grandfather and there are many people who do not have it. So whenever we hang out together, people look at us as if they are seeing something special.”
Describing the film she made, Shriya says that she was filming her Ajoba for the last five to six years. During the second lockdown, he decided to make this a gift for her.
Shriya is currently trying to create a travel podcast of her travels and publish her travel diary in the form of a book. She says, “However, COVID has put a halt to the travel plans of Ajoba. But I am hopeful that he will fulfill his goal of visiting 100 countries and I definitely want to support him.”
So what’s his advice for every young traveler?
He concludes, “If you enjoy traveling, keep an open mind and come up with new experiences from new places.”
Original article – Yoshita Rao
Editing – Archana Dubey
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