When Rajesh Sharma finally became eligible to receive the Covid vaccine, he jumped into action and added three big events to his calendar: his two vaccine appointments and a request for a four-week leave of absence so that he could visit his aged mother in India, who had been hunkering alone on the seventh floor of her hot and humid apartment in Gurgaon, New Delhi. Exactly two weeks and one day after receiving his second Moderna shot and thus fully immunized, he boarded a plane for an intercontinental flight for the first time in a year and a half.
“I have some loose plans to take my Mom for her annual check-ups and get her Gurkha servant, Bahadur, who’s been in our family for thirty years his two Covidshield vaccines, but mostly I planned on a solo trip just to chill out with my mom. Spend time with her before it’s too late, and I’m filled with regrets. I promised my mom that as soon as I was fully vaccinated I’d return to visit her and for me, it marks the beginning of our return to normalcy,” he said, casting a sidelong glance at the passenger next to him.
“The emotional connection that a trip provides is one reason that travel can have an enduring impact on our happiness,” said the earnest bespectacled scholar seated next to him on the long flight to India.
Later he would learn that the man wearing gold-rimmed glasses, about fifty years old with a student’s stoop in his shoulders was Dr. Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who in his professional capacity studied how happiness was affected by experiential purchases versus material ones. As their salads arrived, Dr. Kumar explained that though material purchases like clothing or technical gadgets may physically last, the emotional value they provide is often fleeting because we get used to seeing them in our closet or in that tech drawer among a tangled mess of errant wires. That’s not the case with experiential purchases like travel.
“We look back fondly at that great trip we took,“ Dr. Kumar said while savoring his third glass of red wine with his vegetarian-choice meal of cauliflower biryani and dal with pickle. “We often have these positive memories of our experiences. The psychology of material goods doesn’t work in quite the same way,” he finished, his brown eyes catching the glare coming in through the window.
Twenty-four hours later, when Rajesh stepped out of Indira Gandhi International Airport, the familiar warm odor of sweat, grease, and incense that hung in the humid night air assailed his nostrils. He put his luggage in the taxi he’d ordered, the radio tuned to a single channel—Bollywood Oldies and Goldies, and he hummed along to the songs he recognized from his youth. They drove past tea stalls on stilts, chickens being sold in round cane baskets, and paper mache Durga Puja goddesses being constructed in shanty houses. They passed open sewers—filth-spattered stray dogs rooting n a mound of rubbish—warehouses that looked decrepit but bore names like ‘factory-price Benetton clothing’ and ‘Tetley Darjeeling Tea’ as Rajesh wiped ineffectually at the sweat running from his forehead.
Alighting at his ancestral home after an hour spent on roads clogged with cars and fume-belching trucks he couldn’t suppress the Americanness of his own gaze as he was struck at first by how shabby the house appeared. There were cracks running through the ceiling and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls.
His weary eyes shifted to the eighty-six-year-old woman standing in the doorway, leaning on a cane, her lips lifting in a smile that curled like spreading oil. After eighteen months, the prodigal son was finally home.
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