I remember pedaling fast in the harsh Dehradun sun, swerving around corners with abandon, cap snugly fastened to my head, and shoulders bent on the drop handlebar, which I had ingeniously attached to a basic cycle. My shorts fluttered even in the still air where not a leaf quivered, only because of my speed. I imagined myself as part of Rusty and the gang from my favourite book, Room on the Roof, hurtling down the narrow roads. Stops were made for lunch at a friend’s and tea at another’s, before the basketball camp later that evening. This is the farthest that my memory takes me, as far as venturing out alone is concerned. Just the soothing memory of riding alone in the scorching sun.
More than six years later, I felt the need to drop social and work engagements and spend some time with myself. At 22, I started playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ with bus stop signs in Bangalore. I found myself pointing at random destinations at the KSRTC bus stop in Bangalore on Friday nights, and heading out on the weekend. No maps, no Google searches! In fact, the only reason I made my maiden solo trip to Hampi, was because the name tickled me immensely. The rest, as they say, was history. Several adventurous journeys fed the experiment of being happy in my own company. This also meant meeting the most interesting folks on the road.
It was 3 a.m. in Mahe, a small coastal town snugly surrounded by Kerala on all sides, but technically a part of Pondicherry. I hopped down the bus and drifted groggily towards a heavenly beacon in search of a hot cup of coffee, to counter the cold caused by the incessant rain. The ‘Google-less’ travel ensured that I was absolutely unaware of the fact the Mahe was a pit stop for truck drivers to load up on booze and diesel due to tax exempted prices. It was an English wine shop that had given me hope for a warm snuggle with a hot cup. Dejected I walked to the first hotel, which was unwilling to take a solo woman traveller – then another – and another. Finally a Hindi speaking auto guy came to my rescue and agreed to take me for a long ride in the lashing rain to the next town for a spin, till Mahe woke up. The Gujarati auto driver and I battled the plump water droplets, crossing the flat drive-in Muzhappilangad beach, the oldest bakery in Kerala at Thalassery, and the sandy stretch of Kizhunna before reaching St. Angelo’s Fort at Kannur. And then we came right back.
On the way back, the clouds had taken some rest, so we stopped at the local fish market to inspect the wiggling fresh catch. He hung around with me the whole day – surviving our arduous morning had created a mutual bond. Discovering Mahe’s little secrets is another story, but what I remember most is the lunch that I bagged at the auto driver’s home, meeting his family and an extra zealous friendship, which won me time at special local hideouts. This would have never happened if I was travelling in a group or with a companion. We would have spoken to each other, found respite in the company we already had and never have the space to ‘let in’ someone else with complete trust.
Over the years, cab drivers, co-passengers on buses, chai stall owners, Theyyam dancers, priests, post card sellers and more have not only befriended but taken me under the wing, whether for an entire trip or a few hours. And those are the only moments that have been etched better in my memory than the destinations themselves. Travelling solo is more about the journeys along the way than the experience of the destination alone. If that’s the kind of travel appetite you have, there is nothing more satiating than taking off on your own.
Supriya Sehgal can’t decide which city to call home. Hopping between several for more than 250 days in a year can do that to you. Currently she is trying to peg the wildest experience of 2014. There is a severe tussle between munching away at the ant chutney at Chhattisgarh and a tryst with a grizzly bear in Canada.