Actor Gul Panag has been travelling all her adult life and has made some decisive discoveries on her travels. By Sumeet Keswani
Tell us about your latest travels. I recently spent a weekend in Bern, Switzerland. On my last visit, six years ago, I had driven from Zurich to Bern via Interlaken. But this time, I was invited—I’m the unofficial mascot of the Indian Formula E racing team [Mahindra Racing].
In summer, I’m usually in Europe so I make it a point to go check out the races. I’ve been to around 20 races around the world. The races are city-specific events. The city streets are barricaded and made into a track.
A large portion of Bern [the Old City of Berne] is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from it being a historic city and the capital of Switzerland, it’s surrounded by a river on three sides, making it a natural fortress. The old city had burned down hundreds of years ago [in 1405], and it was completely rebuilt. It has a charm that is rivalled by few other European cities.
The same Bern I had been to earlier—which had historic streets, stunning architecture, and the works—was this time transformed into a racing carnival. The streets had been made into a racetrack. It’s incredible to see how this old European city has embraced clean green mobility.
It was a different facet of the city I saw over the weekend. People came out in huge numbers to check out what was going on. The race is in the heart of the city, so people don’t have to go far away to see it. For me, this trip saw two of my loves coming together—travel, history, and culture on one side, and the future of mobility on the other.
Which trips have proved life-altering for you?
First, a motorcycle trip to Ladakh in 2002 with my then boyfriend—now husband, along with his brother and my brother. Back in the day, it seemed like we were the only non-military folks on that route. Ladakh hadn’t yet become the fashionable road trip it is now. The only other traffic we encountered from Keylong to Ladakh was of trucks and tankers that were stocking up Ladakh for winter.
Everything was life-altering on that trip. It was then that I realised my boyfriend was the kind of man I wanted as my husband—dependable, reliable, one has everything mapped out. At the time, it all seemed painful, and I wondered why we were being so overtly cautious. Three of us were trying to chill, but my boyfriend was the only one who insisted on reaching milestones on time so that we wouldn’t have to be out on the road in the dark. In the end, he was proven right about every precaution he took.
Two years later, in 2004, the Internet was still new. People were just beginning to use it
to do travel bookings. For an upcoming trip to Ibiza, my boyfriend suggested that we book everything online, while I wanted to live in the moment. He put his foot down on hotel bookings, but relented on the other details. Now, Ibiza was like the Goa of Europe. Anybody who had the weekend off turned up there. When it came to a car hire in the city, all the major rental companies had long queues spilling over into the street. We stood in the shortest one—an hour and a half in the sun—when I finally reached the head of the queue and received the question, “Do you have an online booking?”
Apparently, all the cars had been reserved online, and the queues only entertained online pre-bookings. Finally, a local car company—half a kilometre away—granted us a mini van, for which we had to drag our bags over half a kilometre on the roads of Ibiza.
Your evolution as a traveller.
I’ve been travelling since I was 18. For the first three to four years, I was a tourist. A tourist goes to the most iconic places at a destination and takes pictures to tell people they’ve been there; a traveller wants to explore below the surface—the destination’s history, culture, and its people’s way of life.
Travelling as a mother.
When I’m travelling with my son, Nihal, there’s a lot of planning involved. You want to stay ahead of the curve. For e.g., babies who cry on an airplane are probably crying because parents have failed to plan ahead or anticipate their needs. Kids are creatures of habit. So you don’t wait for the child to get hungry to feed them; you feed them like clockwork. You don’t wait for the child’s ears to get blocked on a flight to unblock them. My son has been travelling with me since he was five months old, nearly twice a month, and he hasn’t cried even once on a flight. As a parent, you become more planned and calculating.
Role model in life.
My inspiration for travel came from my father. Before the era of Google, he undertook an epic journey. When he was 25 and serving in the army, he saved up on a foreign tenure, took a leave of four months and combined it with his furlough, and flew to Kabul [in 1973]. From there, he hitch-hiked his way through the Middle East to Tehran. Post that, he did a whole route of Eastern Europe before ending up in England six months later—all on a shoestring budget of USD 2,000 (INR 1,42,122).
In fact, I auditioned for my theatre exchange programme in college only so I could travel to England. I wasn’t even an actor then!
Things I’ve Learned The Hard Way
The cheapest food is available at supermarkets.
When everything else shuts down, railway stations are where you can get a grub.
Most Catholic countries are almost completely shut on Sundays.
Plan ahead and make online bookings, double-check your dates and timings.
Use public transport to feel the pulse of the city.