In February earlier this year, I accomplished a feat for myself - the feat of having travelled to each of India's 29 states at least once before my 29th birthday!
And I'd been thinking of a way to commemorate it, to bring it all together in a manner that is representative of my experiences of travelling around the country - whether solo, with family/friends or groups.
We chanced upon a family working away at their potato farm while we descended on them wielding nothing but our cameras to boast on our behalf (if at all)
For a while we were a bigger spectacle for them to behold until of course we were able to break the ice and got chatty.
Precious (yes, that IS his name) is the fella with the checkered cape who chomps on roasted potatoes while he inspects his folks at work. I was swooning over his Batman-esque cape.
Granny, on the right, alternates between digging out mud with her bare hands and showering some TLC on her grandkids
Watching them in their element left me wondering how did 'family' and 'community' get left behind by people like us in our pursuit for 'development'?"
A mother and a father in the disguise of homestay hosts at the tea estate in Makaibaari near Kurseong in West Bengal
It's not everyday that you get treated like a daughter of the house when you're in a distant town miles away from the place you call home and the people you call parents.
It's not everyday that you're lucky enough to be hosted by Maya Devi and Hari Chhetri either!
Amma is firm and gentle while Baba leaves you enthralled with his stories. Amma loves to stuff you with food as much as she loves to teach you Nepali. Baba ensures you have your cup of chai during the day as much as he ensures you have your cups of rice beer in the evening! And both would like for me to return to Makaibari some day with my future husband ;-)
P.S.: Amma has been filmed in a documentary put together by the Discovery Channel on the lives of tea plantation workers!
We'd found each other on the train from Chandigarh to Amritsar. She needed help navigating her e-ticket on her phone and that broke the ice between us.
She spoke to me about her life in Calcutta after marriage, raising a family there and then moving back to Punjab. She spoke about her children - now all grown up and married; some with children of their own.
Duly noted were her comments about train ticket pricing (it's all so expensive), the absence of 'tall' people in the current generation (she stood at a sturdy 5' 9" herself in spite of her age) and a few how-tos on The Golden Temple!
To ensure none of what she said was in vain, I got asked whether I understood Punjabi!
Such are the conversations I long for on my travels - a peek into the lives of everyday people!
"Instead of sitting and reading, you should have taken the local bus to some of the local sights!" Meet Mr. Gowda, my homestay host in Chikamagalur.
His is a 350 year old heritage home on a 40 acre property of coffee bean and spice plantations. At a little over 60 years, he is far more fit and agile than folks less than half his age. He is a man content with his family (which includes 4 dogs). And while he was most curious about me disappearing into the nearby thicket when not reading (instead of taking that bus to check out temples and what-not in the vicinity), he didn't let that limit the scope of our conversations. We had somewhat similar interests: he despises cities and pigeons with intense fervour!
It was naturally then quite heartwarming to eavesdrop as he spoke to his wife and neighbour about me in Kannada; for in spite of the language barrier I caught one word: धैर्य (Hindi for guts, nerve). It's a word he repeatedly used to describe whatever he understood of my life as a solo traveller!
Story No. 8 | From the #Jammu&Kashmir travel diary
Meet Mr. Namgyal, my homestay host at Hemisshukpachen...
During a walk around the village, he was explaining the concept of community farming. "As a village community, we cultivate over the same land in rotation by alternating between plots that nearer to a source of water supply and those that are not. So during some periods my family has to toil more to bring water to the plot we are cultivating and during the next cycle of cultivation another family will do the same”, he said. “Families here have been doing this for generations. I remember my father and my grandfather following these practices.”
A remote village in distant Ladakh had so much to teach us about living in harmony!
He further deepened our understanding of the Ladakhi culture, “A person is considered rich if they have enough produce from their farm to last them nine years, and what you consider middle-class if they have enough to last them six years… the poor have enough to help them survive three years!” He clarified that this meant that the family had enough without having to move a muscle for a given number of years!
I was left with the question: Could you and I with our educational qualifications and ‘jobs’ ever dare to claim to have enough - let alone for how long the duration?
Story No. 9 | From the #MadhyaPradesh travel diary
I had stayed a night at Pranpur near Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. On the day of my departure, I was going to take the state transport bus to Lalitpur Railway station from where I’d take my train back to Mumbai.
So during breakfast at the guesthouse when the cook enquired with me what I’d do for lunch, I replied that I’d grab a bite either at the station or have something in the train.
To this the cook said, “Oh! You needn’t have to do that. I’ve prepared some lunch for you that I’ll pack so you can eat that on the go”. I was humbled by his gesture. Strictly speaking, what I’d paid for had covered my expenses until breakfast alone. I felt extremely grateful and placed my packaged lunch in my sling bag.
At Lalitpur station, the trend of trains running behind schedule continued and my train was expected to running about 90 minutes late. It was evident that I had a lot of time to kill which I seem to have evenly distributed between fidgeting on my mobile phone and keeping my senses open to any rail related announcements.
Something else also drew my attention away from my phone. A very old lady with wrinkled skin lugging a sack over her back which was already bent with age stood right in front of me, begging for money.
"Please give me a rupee” she said in Hindi.
In spite of her frailty I couldn’t get myself to take out that one rupee coin. And so I ignored her.
She sat next to me and began to rummage through her sack. Some moments later, she repeated her request for ‘one rupee’. I continued to ignore her. Then a third time she said again, "Please give me a rupee. I need food." Food.
The word lingered in my head for a bit. I had food in my bag. I handed my lunch packet over to her. She looked at it and pointed to the silver-foil package in askance - "What's in that?" I told her it contained potato vegetable and some rotis. She seemed pleased.
She looked away for a moment and then looking back at me with a smile she asked, “What will you eat then?” I was left speechless.
Her gesture was far more kinder and nobler than my act. I merely smiled back at her.
Story No. 10 | From the #Maharashtra travel diary
“Come home”, she said in Marathi.
I almost turned to look behind if she meant to say that to somebody else. But there was no ‘somebody else’. It was 3 in the afternoon. My friend and I, caught unawares by a downpour on our post-lunch walk, were taking shelter under a flimsy tree while the rains lashed directionless and the whooshing winds left us drenched and shivering right down to our bones.
She stood there with her umbrella, waiting for our response.
Strangely, I felt compelled to say, “Thank you. But it’s okay. We’re alright here.” She refused to comply.
Soon three heads were jostling for space under the umbrella as we made our way to her house – which was on the incline adjacent to the road. There were just two other houses around it.
A Warli tribe village in Maharashtra's Walvanda Village, hers was a house made of karvi sticks slathered with dung and mud.
Once indoors, my bones were grateful that my brain hadn’t gotten its way in declining the offer for shelter and the opportunity to dry off. My good Samaritan offered to make us some tea; which this time I happily accepted.
There was one question I was itching to have answered, so I spat it out: How did you spot us? She smiled and said, “My sons had left to go out a while ago and when it started to rain, I stepped out to check if anybody had seen them. I was speaking to those boys who were on the cycle and that’s when I saw you’ll under the tree. I didn’t want to leave you’ll there, so I asked you’ll to come home. I’m sorry but our house is very basic…” Her voiced trailed and I began to piece together her hesitation because of how little she thought she had to offer.
Nodding in disagreement I said, “Your gesture to welcome us strangers into your home and keep us under your roof is more than we could have hoped to have. If it weren’t for you, we would still be out there cold shivering like a leaf!”
Story No. 11 | From the #Chhattisgarh travel diary
“Aapko darr nahi lagga Bastar akele aane mein?” ("Weren't you afraid of traveling to Bastar on your own?") and then through the corner of my eyes I saw his lips curl into a smile.
To his question, my reply was an unflustered ‘No’. I was by myself in Chhattisgarh's Bastar district to meet with an NGO.
Kondagaon, one of the major towns in Bastar, is well connected by road from Raipur - the capital of Chhattisgarh. This 5 hour bus journey takes you through some of the most beautiful landscapes within the country. It’s comfortable ride at it through the flat plains at the outskirts of Raipur and the little hillocks around the Keskal Ghat.
Truth be told, in the light of everything that gets doled out in the name of news, I did have a different mental image of what Kondagaon would look like. Thankfully though, it was anything but that.
I decided to halt in the village itself that night rather than put up in a hotel which would have been another hour away.
And I spent some time just walking around. Never once did I have to look over my shoulder. At dusk everyone was returning from their fields – they were chatty, with a carefree disposition. The local people had a certain gait and pace about them. It’s something I have found in almost every place that isn’t a metropolis or located close to one. Above all I don’t think anyone gave me more than a second look. This was such a stark contrast to how we, the urban folk, view anyone who is not ‘like’ us!
Yes, there are undercurrents and tensions. The place has pockets that are rife with strife. It would seem like a call for truce has no takers. Because – and to cite an analogy - if the disease ceases to exist what will the doctors, the nurses or even the pathology centres have left to do?
Unfortunately, tourism has taken a hit; a real bad one at it. There are no foreign tourists coming into Chhattisgarh any more. Not as many as there once used to be. This is alarming because the region has accommodated groups of 50 and more between the months of October and February when the weather is much more pleasant
Story No. 12 | From the #HimachalPradesh travel diary
It was close to 5 PM with no human life (or any life for that matter) in sight. The road was nothing but a dusty pathway.
Stepping out of the vehicle tired, weary and hungry from the arduous journey we found that our driver seemed to have disappeared momentarily after his solemn announcement that we were lost somewhere on our way to Kaza in Spiti Valley
With no mobile connectivity on our phones some of us decided to be brave and venture around in the hope of finding someone who could be of some help.
In a seemingly deserted village there happened to be a home that welcomed a bunch of thirteen strangers. It seemed unlike anything I’d personally experienced before but there we were being warmly ushered in by this man who could only be heard saying, “Aap toh humare mehmaan ho. Aur mehmaan to devta sammaan hote hain.
“Guests are godlike and so I have the honour of welcoming god into my abode…”
Little did he realize that he was our godsend.
The house was quaint and warm; a sharp contrast to the crisp wind that blew outside.
Before we knew it there was hot piping tea for all of us along with a lot of ‘sattu’ for us to eat (that we would soon learn was more than just an acquired taste). We’d spent a good half an hour to forty-five minutes inside sipping our chai and uncramping our bones from the journey before we received a call that both fuel and our directions to Kaza had arrived and we could finally begin to make our way for the destination we’d set out for earlier that day.
To open your home to a group of completely unknown people so wholeheartedly and unassumingly, to provide them with whatever you have no matter how little and to wish them well as they departed without the slightest hint of any expectation but goodwill is reminiscent of a part of India I miss experiencing in the cities.
Story No. 13 | From the #Bihar travel diary
Sometime in January 2015, I’d posted a question to a travel group on Facebook: “Anyone who has travelled extensively around Bihar in the house?” To which one of the responses I received was, “Oh God! Never.”
It was the first time I was stepping into Bihar. At the outset, I’ll admit that while I didn’t feel brave enough to venture on my own, I was definitely intrigued by it. Thanks to all the history textbooks, I’d had a walk through the lives of some of the greatest minds (think Chanakya, Buddha, Mahavir) and been transported through battles and uprisings (think Patliputra and 1857).
The journey from Patna to Bodh Gaya via Rajgir was a stunner. But that morning at 8 AM I was boarding the bus as a lone female from Rajgir to Bodh Gaya. I realised that all of the seats towards the front of the bus seem to have been occupied (by men) and I had to make do with sitting somewhere at the back.
The conductor got around to issuing tickets after the bus began to move and seeing me there asked me to move to the front.
I learnt then that the two seats right behind the driver are reserved for women – so much so that the seat next to me was left vacant when there weren’t other women - even though some other men had to keep standing.
A similar thing happened when I took a bus back to Patna from Gaya.
It could be Bihar’s geographic location in what’s come to be known as India's ‘notorious north’ that puts it in this awkward bind. But in my five weeks of being on my own all throughout the state, never once did I experience being cat-called!
Story No. 14 | From the #Manipur travel diary
I was discouraged from going to Manipur. It's not a good time to be there they said. I still went.
On day 4 after checking out the INA Museum and osmosis-ing by Loktak, my friend and I were on our way back to Imphal
15 minutes into our wait at the stop, we spotted a bus approaching and at that exact same moment my gaze met with the gaze of a lady bystander. She smiled and asked us in Hindi if we were going to Imphal. We were more that ecstatic at hearing someone speak a language we were both comfortable with.
“Yes, we are. It seems like the bus is here too!”
“This bus takes over an hour longer to get to Imphal due to its many stops. Come along with me – we can hop into a shared rickshaw from a little ahead”
And just like that we followed her. Once inside the rickshaw she enquired,
“So where are you’ll from?
Oh! It’s just the two of you from Mumbai exploring Manipur, is it?
How long have you’ll been here?
What have you’ll seen so far?
Where are you’ll currently staying?
Why don’t you’ll come and stay with me? I can help you’ll in getting to the places around from here!”
Truth be told I was taken aback with how quickly she had not only warmed up to us but also opened up to us.
Through our conversations, I learnt of her daughter who moved to Bangalore to study and now works there as a nurse. In fact, she was making a trip to Imphal to meet with someone whom she would hand over a package to have delivered to her daughter. And perhaps that explained the reason why she extended herself so much for our sake as well. Perhaps.
Story No. 15 | From the #Kerala travel diary
"Yes, accommodation is available. How many persons should I block the reservation against? Just one? For yourself? Okay. You needn’t have to worry ma’am. Our facility is absolutely safe and suitable for a solo female traveller. Would you prefer a pick-up from the railway station?"
^That's a snippet of the telephonic conversation I'd had with my homestay host when I'd traveled solo to Wayanad in Kerala in 2013 - back when I was a rookie solo traveler.
P.S.: My host did make arrangements to receive and drop me off at Calicut airport.
More recently I was in the state, last June at Vembanad and then Kochi, homestaying my way through but feeling like I was with family.
There's so much generosity out there in the world that's just waiting to be experienced, IMHO!
Story No. 16 | From the #Gujarat travel diary
Krutarthsinh Jadeja, or K as he signs off his emails, has converted his family-owned 110-year-old haveli property in Kutch into a homestay.
An avid traveller himself, K is the kind of host who is neither too distant, nor too involved. He’s a huge promoter of local crafts, such as appliqué work, metal wares and tie-and-dye, and makes it his prerogative to sit with his guests during their meals to share snippets about Kutch – and nearby artisan villages of Bhujodi, Khamir and Ajrakhpur.
The B&B has four rooms, each unique yet exquisite and reflective of the local culture with their own little library, and K is more than happy to let a guest exchange books from their own collection.
Hint hint, that's what I did!
Story No. 17 | From the #ArunachalPradesh travel diary
Me (after purchasing orange coloured sweetlimes): Can I take a picture of you'll?
She: Yes, of course!
(to a friend in her group) Hey you at the back look into the lens; she's taking our photograph.
(on being shown what was clicked) It's looking so good. Get it printed in tomorrow's newspaper, okay?
Over the years, I've made many trips to Rajasthan; with almost always stopping over at #Jaipur.
But there was this one time when I was in Jaipur for a friend's wedding and on my way back to Delhi by train. Turns out it was the day there was a cricket match that India was playing. I cannot recall against whom.
But here's the only other thing I remember: I was the one updating folks around me about the score and the fall of wickets!
Talk about breaking the ice
And I was no longer the cricket fan I once used to be!
P.S.: The photograph is from one of my favourite places in Rajasthan and India -- #Udaipur
My brief experience of travelling solo around India over the past 4+ years has showed me that you can reduce the chances of being looked at with intent – whether out of curiosity or malice – by arming yourself with a book and pen or even a camera. That and the presence of mind to not portray yourself as a damsel/dude in distress, helps.
But when you spend over 36 hours on your own without being made to feel like you’ve committed a grave transgression, you are likely to slip into a less on-the-defence mode.
Which is what happened to me last November.
I had reached Dehradun after two train journeys and was making small talk with a co-passenger – a local – on the shared taxi ride from Dehradun to Pantwari. “Where are you from?”
“You’ve come here all the way from Mumbai? Just to visit a mountain village?”
“And so who else is with you?”
“It’s just me.”
“What? You’re here on your own? Why would you do something like that?” These questions were coming from a place of concern – a feeling I am now all too well acquainted with now. And this makes people a lot more endearing to me for some reason.
Two hours into the journey and a couple of minutes before he was about to get off, he added:
“Just being by yourself can get lonely. It is always nice to have the company of people with you.”
Story No. 20 | From the #Nagaland travel diary
"Don't go to Nagaland. The state is under curfew, you'll only waste your time there", they said that too.
And I still went.
At 6:30 the morning we arrived, the railway station bore a deserted look. Kohima was ~70 kilometres away. Were we going to have to yield and give in?
There was just one cab driver and he was quoting the sky to take us to the capital city. He had ends to meet under those prevailing circumstances. I could only empathise!
Frequent, frantic calls to our homestay host in Kohima weren't conclusive but it helped me feel less all on my own.
About half an hour later, a couple exited the station. There was hope. We'd all share a ride and half our fare. But more than that we'd have each other in case there was any trouble along our way.
There was no trouble. The road continued to bear a forlorn look. Hills had been reduced to rubble from road construction work that had taken a hit due to the curfew. I lamented that the valley wasn't green.
Convoys of army vehicles were spotted after every couple of kilometres.
Conversations within the cab were guarded at first. And then came the thaw. Our co-travellers were army personnel. The husband had come to drop his wife for duty before he would head to his posting; their kids somewhere 'home', safe with their grandparents.
We were reassured that we had nothing to worry about while we were in Nagaland. Things would eventually settle though we might face some inconvenience.
We bid adieu at the city centre in Kohima and I was still on tenterhooks ... but not for too long. I had this view and breakfast to allay my concerns. And locals who helped us manage our four days without any discomfort (to the extent possible).
Story No. 21 | From the #Tripura travel diary
Story No. 22 | From the #Mizoram travel diary
After our touchdown at Aizawl, the officer who initialled our Inner Line Permit, recommended that we take a prepaid cab from the airport itself as there are no other modes of public transport.
That's how I met Ringa
Seated in our Maruti 800, our driver – Ringa – was a very friendly chap. He was moderately conversant and we exchanged snippets from each other’s lives. Cabbies like Ringa love regaling you with their admiration for their state. And Mizoram is definitely worthy of every bit of admiration.
In an extremely kind gesture that neither my friend nor I saw coming, somewhere during our 33 kilometre drive, he pulled over the cab to treat us to some sugarcane juice. We exchanged numbers after we got off at Chanmari so we could coordinate our drop to the airport in 48 hours.
We were flying out of Aizawl on a Sunday. As it turns out, the Christian state remains mostly shut as locals are attending prayer services at their churches. Ringa was also at church but he got a friend of his to get in touch with us and arrange for our drop to the airport.
That's how I met Kiran
Kiran, our new cabbie, felt a lot like meeting Ringa’s twin – except the two aren’t even related by blood. They are just friends and like Kiran would later tell us they often pass on passengers when one is busy. It helps business and also mitigates inconvenience for the passengers, he said.
What if we too could all operate from a place of self-assuredness instead of inadequacy that makes us rotten with envy?
Story No. 23 | From the #Telangana travel diary
I was traveling to Hyderabad on a project. And I was using Airbnb for the first time. Her's were the only reviews that were not just positive and goody-good but folks who'd stayed at her place had the warmest of things to say and memories to share. That and the fact that she was also an avid traveller, helped make my decision for me.
She was at work when I arrived in the city. So she arranged for her house-help to be around and let me in.
The house was just like the photographs on Airbnb. My anxieties were receding into the background.
When I walked into my room, I had a welcome note which well, welcomed me, mentioned that there was food (I'd arrived around lunch time) and also had the WiFi password written down!
I shared a kinship with her even before we'd met! And I said so in as many words when I was talking to another friend that same day.
I recall work held her back that evening and so when she did come home, we exchanged minimal pleasantries, she apologized for being exhausted and crashed.
But shutting us up at breakfast the next morning was a task. Only travellers know what I mean. But we both had work beckoning us, so we head out our own respective ways.
Over the two weeks, it felt like I was living with family. We hung out, watched a movie, she introduced me to some of her friends and we continued to yap incessantly about travel.
We met again when I was in the city in December 2016 and we picked our conversations right where we'd left them last.
Travel does make family out of strangers, I tell you!
Story No. 24 | From the #Assam travel diary
It was the last leg of my travels in India's northeast. And I was returning to Assam from Meghalaya where #29in29 had been achieved.
Majuli was the destination. We'd taken the bus from Tezpur that morning and reached Jorhat around 3 PM. We were told the last ferry to Majuli was around 4 PM. Obviously, this was concerning.
But our bus conductor noticing that we were outsiders went out of his way and got us an autorickshaw that would take us to the city centre from where we'd get a connecting shared vehicle to the ferry point.
We had a couple for company in the rickshaw. The lady got talking, asking us where we were from and where we were going. I was too nervous to make small talk. I only had the ferry on my mind.
But my friend obliged and answered her questions.
Before we knew it the lady agreed to have us safely escorted to the next mode of transport and assured us that her husband would ensure we neither got lost nor duped by anyone.
Why she even snapped at the rickshaw driver who was taking us to the city centre saying: "Why should they pay you ₹ 200 when a shared vehicle will take them to the same place for ₹ 20?"
And she abided by her word... Not before asking us: "You sure you don't want to spend the night at our home and head to Majuli tomorrow morning instead?"
We didn't know her
She didn't know us
To be honest, my inner sceptic was well, being all sceptical...
But that's just how it is on the road, I guess. People do step it up ...time after time after time
It was Mark Twain who said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
I couldn't NOT agree with him! And you... do you have stories of hope too?
To subscribe to posts via email, click here
For opportunities to work with me, click here