I am utterly fascinated by formations – both natural and man-made. The Manhattan skyline, the Buddhist Wats in Thailand, the hidden city of Machu Picchu, the Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Himalayas, the Hudson River, the Andes, the Yosemite Valley. And also the hill-top homestay in Coorg, the tiny motel in the California desert with pictures of creepy clowns on the walls, the small tent we occupied in the heart of the Yellowstone National Park, and the AirBnb house in the middle of freaking nowhere in Upstate New York. One of the primary hallmarks of human civilization is the advent of construction – barns and storehouses and mud huts and border fences. Construction of bridges and parks and skyscrapers are primary cornerstones of human evolution, that live alongside natural structures like mountains, canyons, caves and rivers. They provide shelter, safety, and luxury. They house diversity. In one single apartment complex in Manhattan or Mumbai, you can find a doctor with an in-house clinic, a painter with eaves, canvasses and colorful palettes, a hoarder with old clothes, souvenirs, and junk, and a businessman with phones, laptops, whiteboards, and documents. In one single mountain in the Andes, you can find 50 different species of worms and snakes, various nesting areas of falcons and hummingbirds, caverns full of bats, and thickets housing rodents, monkeys, and wild cats. Every structure is teeming with its own special assortment. Every structure is a habitat. Every structure has been created with painstaking detail. And every structure has a story to tell, if only one looks closely enough.
A small hut in a remote village in Karnataka is as special as the Taj Mahal – the significance is not measured in money, but in the experience. It is easy to assign worth to structures. People are willing to pay an arm and a leg to live on Park Avenue in New York or Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, but on the other hand Governments hurry to hide the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the Dharawi slums in Mumbai out of sight as they are considered an eyesore. Human opinion of structures is measured not just by their worth in beauty and money but also their relative value. What’s so special about the Nandi Hills in Bangalore when you’ve hiked up the Himalayan mountains? We always tend to think “I’ve seen much better”. What is better? Bigger is better. Luxurious is better. Thrilling is better. Would you ever go white water rafting in a theme park after you’ve rafted in the Hudson or the Beas?
But when it comes to me, I cannot choose between historical ruins and gleaming skyscrapers, between a trip to Hampi and the Empire State Building, between visiting a tiny waterfall nestled in the Western Ghats and the Niagara. There have been times where elaborate formations have left me unsatisfied, and the tiniest of rivulets has made me marvel. I cannot and do not assign worth in terms of size, I do so in terms of experience. A visit to the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room has made me as breathless as the first sight of Machu Picchu around the bend at the top of the Andes.
The list of breathtaking, fascinating, mind-blowing structures I have seen is finite, but the ones I haven’t seen keep calling my name. The Colosseum in Rome, the Louvre in Paris, the volcanoes in Ecuador, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Sydney Opera House, the Everest Base Camp, Mount Fiji – this list is endless. While memorable trips are a combination of the company, the weather, the food, the journey, and the destination among other things, what stays with us the most are the sights and vistas and structures. The structures tell us a story that is far from the rehearsed speech of the tour guide – a special story that springs from the intricate beams and rocks and windows and leaves that only we can hear. I will eventually forget the taste of the Thai green curry but will never forget the jaw-dropping awe I felt when I saw Wat Pho. I will eventually forget the fear I felt when I hiked up in ice and snow, but I will never forget the tops of the Himalayan peaks slowly turning golden as the sun rose. Listen to the stories, for every rock and every brick is full of them.