January 24, 2010 3:06:54 pm
On heavy-duty bikes,driving big powerful sedans,or even trucks,on Indias highways and pot-holed village roads,negotiating unwarranted male attention and questions like why arent you at home taking care of your family,a new tribe of young and not-so-young Indian women are taking road trips. Their stories are interesting,often funny and sometimes a little scary. One tip for would-be women roadies: old male truckers are usually helpful
Negotiating potholed roads in India is easy; convincing parents,friends,lovers and the rest of middle-class India that women are in the drivers seat is the hard part. Having said that,wanderlust is taking a handful of women onto Indian highways and this emerging tribe of roadies has travellers tales that are both hair-raising and exhilarating. Driving through cattle can be easier than arguing with irate male road hogs. Thumbing a ride with the average Indian male is a strict no-no.
We picked south India since we continue to find the south safer for women, says entrepreneur Rajvi Mariwala (29) who hooked up with best friend Shruti Chakravarty (29),a social worker. The trip ran down the peninsula: Mumbai-Goa-Shimoga-Bangalore-Ooty-Cochin-Kanyakumari-Kodaikanal-Pondicherry-Chennai-Vijayawada-Hyderabad-Pune-Mumbai. Mariwala convinced her father to swap her Maruti Swift with his heavier Honda Accord,a suitable car for their 5,000 km-in-three-weeks quest. Given that we had already done road trips in Europe and Greece,it was a challenge to see if we could pull it off in India, says Chakravarty.
In 2007,Moksha Jetley,a 47-year-old businesswoman,got to live the dream she had since the age of 17. Tearing across the country in a heavy-duty bike was stuff straight out of Hollywood films. In the 80s,middle-class Indian society refused to encourage girls to venture into so-called male terrain. But my father sensed my interest in two-wheelers and taught me how to ride a scooter, says Jetley. She graduated from riding her Vespa to a Royale Enfield 350cc mo-bike when she rode from Manali to Leh-Ladakh. Jetley is a single parent who runs Back and Beyond,a travel company that organises biking trips across India. After my daughter started working,I was free of responsibilities and obligations. I decided to realise my teenage dream, she says.
Women often have to upgrade vehicles since they usually drive lighter cars,unsuitable for road trips. Chandigarh-based fashion designer Jas Lakhmana (34) is trading in her Skoda Octavia for a four-wheel drive to suit her upcoming trip to Leh-Ladakh.
Whether travelling with the boys or the girls,travel writer Puneet Inder Sidhu has been voted the best driver. She is always behind the wheel,on a gut-busting trip to Bhutan or a joyride in the German countryside in a sporty Mazda Cabriolet. Sidhu believes that the gender you travel with is not so important,though taking instructions from a male navigator is admittedly hard.
The travellers stress the importance of choosing the right vehicle and planning the trip well ahead. My travel agent of five years books me safe hotels. I always research online before taking off, says Lakhmana.
Of course,life throws those curved balls at you. Mariwala and Chakravarty found themselves lost in Karanataka,with language not on their side. None of us speak Kannada and we were trying to find our way to Mandagade where our host for the night was putting us up. We saw a signboard that announced Mandagate,a village. We should have guessed it was the wrong one, says Chakravarty. They were stuck on a narrow road,looking for a hospital,the landmark that their host had told them about. With a bullock cart in front of us,all we could do was join the laughter of the occupants of the cart, says Mariwala.
The locals proved helpful. An old man drew a map in the dust with his stick,the village pujari was called and he spoke a few lines in English. Finally,they found Mandagade a 100 km ahead. In Sholapur,we had a stimulating conversation on marriage with an orange seller. He wondered why the two of us werent married or at home,taking care of our kids. But he was open to our ideas,especially when we told him our parents supported our decision to travel, says Chakravarty. In Pondicherry,a Muslim family invited them home for a meal and in Kodaikanal,their home-stay host treated them as fellow travellers with whisky and tall tales.
We only had one nasty incident with an urban,English-speaking man and his wife in Bangalore. We accidentally grazed their cars bumper while parking and they kicked up a ruckus,demanding a ridiculous sum of money. They even questioned our character, says Chakravarty.
Sidhu,who was behind the wheel in an old and trusted Maruti Esteem on a Patiala to Delhi trip with a woman friend,faced many stares from fellow travellers on the way. Some of them made U-turns to race or unnerve us. We actually welcomed the dark,so no one could see who was driving, she says.
At 43,Divya Tate,believes in the eco-friendly bicycle,and has travelled across France and Thailand alone. But she felt vulnerable on a solo trip from Pune to Goa. A big group of half-naked drunk males in cars with their stereos blasting really bothered me, she says. Once,a flasher stalked her along the highway to Goa,but she found a village and he was soon discouraged. I found that ignoring his open fly was the biggest insult I could have thrown his way, says Tate. Despite these scary moments,she found that rural people in India were very hospitable. A divorcee,she believes women travelling alone should be careful not to land themselves in vulnerable positions. I try to keep it simple and flexible. I keep the door open for the unexpected, she says.
Sometimes,confrontation works better. Given my age,most eve-teasers have lost interest. Even then,a biker followed me. I ignored him but he persisted,so I called up the nearest police station and alerted them. Then I went up to him and confronted him, says Jetley.
Sometimes there is safety in numbers. Nine women found no hurdles while hiring Honda Activas to make their way around Goa,a watered-down version of Hells Angels. We were very diligent while driving down in our two cars from Mumbaionly music and no alcohol, says Akshata Ravi (27),a BPO group trainer who has done frequent trips to Goa. Once there,the women ditched their cars and hit the beach. On my 27th birthday,we were all so high,it took an hour to find our bikes. Then we tried to ride them. It was shakiest drive of my life, says Ravi. After bumping into a couple of trees,we decided to make it back to the cottage on foot! she says.
The important thing about being with a group of girls is that there is no head of the pack. There is no man in charge and that can be very liberating. The onus of taking care,fixing the vehicle or getting food and drinks was on all of us, says Timsey Zaveri,(33),a techie who was also part of the Goa group.
She believes that women need to get over their technophobia. Ive never done road trips with guys but prefer the company of woman travellers. A lot of women are just scared to drive,my mum has learnt,but not my sister-in-law, she says.
Sidhu,whose travelogue Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe (Frog Books,India) hits the stands this month,admits that despite being a seasoned traveller,she would never chance a ride with a stranger in India. Safety comes before heroics, she says. Thats advice from someone who has been driving since 18. Ive car-pooled my way across Europe with complete strangers without facing any kind of ugliness but its not worth risking the Indian male, says Sidhu.
Another challenge women face on the road: Unlike men who can stop wherever they want and pee,women have it tough, says Lakhmana. On a recent trip to Ranthambore with a girlfriend,the two women were desperately looking for bushes. Unfortunately,on this stretch,all we saw was parched land. We had a good laugh over it later, says Lakhmana. Chakravarty has a solution: The trick is to pee between car doors. Pull up to the side,open the front and back passenger doors and squat in between. The visibility from other moving vehicles is nil, she says. Another valuable tip for women travellers: Do not get out of the car if someone is arguing with you.
Pioneers like Giti Thadani (48) set out with women friends across Western India in the late 1980s,when many of todays women roadies were still in diapers. Thadanis battered Honda truck was baptised Kali after a near-death experience with a boorish truck driver. Although she has traded it for a Maruti Gypsy,she swears by her truck. When the truck driver saw three women in the Honda,he overtook us and then braked. Luckily,I managed to swerve and avoid a collision. On the same stretch,I met this incredibly helpful mechanic who fixed my vehicle,plying me with refreshments for free, says Thadani,who encountered many good Samaritans while researching the Satki temples of India. My journey along the dusty roads of Madhya Pradesh,Gujarat,UP and Rajasthan was a discovery of my roots, says the historian,author and visual artist.
Her book Moebiustrip: Digressions from Indias Highways,published by Penguin in 2003,catalogues her travels. While visiting a site in Old Mandu near Dhar Mahal,I met an ASI officer who converted his office table into a bed for me. I rested among priceless statues and artefacts, says Thadani.
Sidhu loves taking off for Himachal Pradesh,which she says is extremely safe for women travellers. Im a bit worried about breakdowns. While I am adept at changing a wheel,I would need a more mechanical companion for the serious stuff, she says. No points for guessing which gender usually fits that bill.
But if you are looking to seek help,heres some tried-and-tested advice. Look for old male truckers,they are more helpful and chances of it turning into a bad scene are remote, says Lakhmana. She should know. Shes been sneaking out her dads car when she was all of 13. Today,Lakhmana is a safe,cautious driver who has travelled 55 cities spread out in 17 countries.
The rite of passage that has been essentially male requires bruising. Many of my friends cannot leave their creature comforts behind and they cannot stand the long hours of driving. But the day they make roads safer you will find more women behind the wheel, says Mariwala. Her accessories on the road are Kaya face wipes,lip balm and moisturiser. After all,who said bad skin had to accompany road trips?
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