EARLIER THIS YEAR, a friend lent me his derelict house in a small village in Tamil Nadu. I had been keen to visit the Mahashivaratri celebrations at a nearby yoga centre. However, since my trip was last minute, it wasn’t possible to get accommodation there. And so, instead of staying in the city 30 km away, I decided to take up my friend’s offer. I had imagined it to be in better condition, but I engaged a local person to give it a thorough cleaning and decided to make do. I put up my tent inside and stayed there for over a week. For windows, there were gaping holes in the wall with bamboo stick fences, and the bathroom was a small structure 200 metres on the other side of a weedy yard. It was my first time in an actual village. Every day I would wake up to multiple cock-a-doodles all around, except one morning when it was drowned by a domestic fight nearby. Walking out of the house in the morning on fresh cow-dung layered lanes, traditional rangolis outside the doors, colourful flower trellises, dogs that looked ill and villagers staring at me as I pass by—it was a tick mark on a checklist item that I didn’t know existed. I felt my years of travelling solo pay off in the kind of life I wanted to live. To know the people and the land, and to be comfortable with the unexpected. Sometimes it takes me a while to realise that I actually love the strange situations that travel puts me in.
The first trip I embarked on alone was in 2009. I had read online about women travellers from foreign countries who didn’t even know our language but journeyed across India all by themselves. Out of sheer curiosity, I planned a 15-day trip from Mumbai to Coimbatore, by way of Goa, Bangalore and Mysore, which became one of my all-time favourite places, with its two massive lakes, Kukurahalli and Karanji, and the lovely walking tracks around them. This was also when I met one of my first Twitter friends outside Mumbai. And the trend continued on later trips. I would always try and meet the Twitterati of any new city I visit. While going from Goa to Bangalore via an overnight bus, I had specified that I was a woman while booking my seat, and yet, there was a man on the next one. The seats were all full and while there were a couple of other women, they were with kids, so I didn’t try to swap. Anyway, I gauged the guy and figured it was going to be okay. And it was. Since then, for the next many years, overnight Volvos were my thing, crisscrossing places like Bangalore, Mysore, Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, Udupi, Mangalore, Hampi, Pondicherry, Kochi and Coonoor.
In the journeys that followed, I kept getting pushed out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I would be late reaching my accommodation or sometimes too early. Sometimes I fell sick. One summer I was in Jagannath Puri, my first ever visit to the Odisha side of the country, and I spent most of it with viral fever. I managed to go out and get some medicines, but couldn’t explore as I had planned. Sometimes I feel awkward being alone or I can’t figure how to navigate my way through the dense crowds of a bus stand. On the other hand, there are the amazing experiences of solo travel. Like making new friends of completely different backgrounds. Once it so happened that I was in Coonoor during winter and had no warm clothing with me. Being from Mumbai, I didn’t expect Coonoor to be so cold. A Canadian lady at the nearby table saw me shivering and got me some woollen socks from her bag. Now I count her and her husband among my dearest friends.
Travel is not the only thing in my life. I have other deep interests like yoga and entrepreneurship. Travel has only been an attempt to live the best life possible
Celebrating new festivals on the road can also be very enjoyable. Like the traditional Pongal celebration that I was part of at Isha Yoga Centre in Coimbatore. It opened me to the world of farmers and cattle. Experiencing places by plan can be wonderful, but so also is finding places one has never heard about, like the beautiful Rewalsar town near Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. It has a serene lake sacred to three religions, a cave temple to meditate and an authentic Tibetan community. I was overwhelmed by it.
MY TRAVELS GAVE me deeper insights into the world, its people, their culture, and society. Now when the Government comes up with a cow policy, I actually know how villagers in Himachal and Tamil Nadu feel about their cows. I have grown more comfortable in my skin and accepted many of my weaknesses. For example, I can’t bargain well. So, I made peace with the fact that I would get fleeced every now and then. And it happens pretty much every time I need to take a rickshaw in Tamil Nadu. Another defining aspect of solo travel is the inevitable trust that develops for the world around. Because, at the end of day, it’s those around me that I have to rely on to share my joys and sorrows. People usually worry about who to contact in case there is a problem. But it is also important to consider that as a solo traveller, who do I celebrate with if I am happy? And over the years, I am learning how to do this. To invite not-so-well-known people into my joys. In India, it’s easier to find people who treat me like family while travelling. They will advise me about marriage, what places to see, how to spend my time, and do random chit-chat. In Agra, for example, a fellow train passenger found me a taxi outside the station, negotiated the rates and even suggested places to see.
The first few years, I travelled only around south India. Once I felt more adept, I visited north India as well—Himachal Pradesh, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur and Pushkar, to name a few places. These were not quick weekend trips but longer adventures of a few weeks or a month. I worked on the side when I travelled. I had a social media marketing agency and so whenever I didn’t have any client meetings coming up in Mumbai, I could travel and work off the laptop.
In 2015, my travelling shifted gears. I wrapped up my agency and was looking at a few months of only travel. That’s when I planned my first international trip to Europe. I kept digging for a different travel experience and I came across cycle touring. Basically, carry all the luggage on the cycle, and well, cycle. I found a guy in Mumbai who had cycle toured around the world. I got in touch with him and he made everything simple for me.
A flurry of planning and paperwork followed. I had to plan out the gear I would need, like the cycle, cycling tools and the camping setup. I had to finalise my route well in advance because Europe is so huge and diverse. Finally, after looking at many options, I chose the Berlin to Copenhagen velo route. This is an officially marked route for international cyclists, which would be good for a newbie like me. I also had to keep my luggage minimum so I could load it on my cycle. The visa was another big challenge because the agent said that a solo application will be rejected. I then consulted a few travel friends and successfully applied on my own.
Mysore became one of my all-time favourite places, with its two massive lakes, Kukurahalli and Karanji, and the lovely walking tracks around them
There were more challenges to tackle, but I landed in Berlin and had 12 days to buy my gear. I searched online and spoke to a lot of locals to find the right shops. Buying gear in Berlin is a breeze, thanks to the city’s knowledgeable staff and lower prices compared to the rest of Europe. The day of leaving arrived, and on my way to my first campsite, I took a halt to check whether my luggage was loaded properly. An old Afghani was sitting nearby. We chatted a while and he was happy to know that I was Indian. I met people from all over the world on the ride.
I cycled alone from Berlin to Copenhagen, 700 km, in 17 days. I camped out most nights. A ‘heat wave’ was on in Europe at the time, so the temperature was around 300 Celsius, which was quite comfortable for me. The first night, I didn’t put the protective top layer of the tent, as it was so warm. And as I slept off, through the tent mesh, I could see the stars twinkling above. For the first few days it was difficult to process the experience because everything I was doing was so new. It was only towards the end of the trip that I started getting used to being on the road with no real plan in mind except to cycle onwards. I loved it. And yet, I had to end it soon in Copenhagen. Even in Europe, solo cycling and camping is not commonplace for women. Many there had never seen an Indian cycle touring and were surprised to see me—the same reaction that I get in India.
I have travelled alone in India, Europe, Australia and Taiwan, and found one similarity everywhere: locals don’t think their country is safe. This was true even in Taiwan, which I found one of the safest countries. The other commonality: no one trusts their government. When I came back from Taiwan, I wanted to solo cycle tour in India too. So in December 2016, I went on a three-day cycling trip in south India. I had already solo travelled in the south, so I felt most comfortable here. I chose to cycle from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai, through Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram. I took a day’s halt at Kanchipuram to see its historic temples. The roads were beautiful. And I came across so many interesting places, like the temple at Thirukulakendrum where an eagle comes to eat the offered food every day at 12 pm sharp. Since then, I have gone cycling in Himachal Pradesh, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Jagannath Puri and a few other towns of India.
Solo travel for me started with very ‘safe’ and properly planned trips, but it is now dynamic. I am open to trying out a lot more new stuff, whether it is staying in Tamil Nadu villages or car pooling across Spain. This allows for many more options while travelling and the experience is that much more diverse.
Travel is not the only thing in my life. I have other deep interests like yoga, communications, entrepreneurship. Travel has only been an attempt to live the best life possible. The most important thing is to figure out who I am, and travel is a great tool to know myself better. As a woman, it can be liberating. Because it is not necessary to be afraid to step out. When you walk out of your fences, you may actually find that the world is lovely.