Sudha Mahalingam & Her Solo Adventures Around The World

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Sudha Mahalingam is the author of the book, The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy and the author of the blog www.footlooseindian.com. She also redefines the word crazy with her adventurous, free-spirited travel across the world. She has gone skydiving, been locked up at the top of a minaret in Yazd, sailed the Mekong without an itinerary and recently risked life and limb to trek up the Tsingy Stone Forest in Madagascar. Here are her thoughts on travelling the globe in her own words.

My first solo trip was Kailash Mansarovar in 1996 when my son was four and a half years old. The Ministry of External Affairs had just opened the route up and I felt that I wanted to go. It was a 32 day trekking trip with complete strangers.

I like being on my own when I travel. I have done plenty of travel with family too but then you become responsible for them. You are constantly catering to their needs. Even when I travel with friends, sometimes there are differences. When I travel alone the risks are mine and the rewards are mine too. For instance, during a trip down the Mekong river, my friends were unprepared for kind of boat we eventually found.
I like travelling without an extremely planned itinerary.

Initially, my family would be worried but after 2-3 trips they understood that I could manage. They also realised I can handle unplanned situations and that I’m a much better-adjusted person after when I’m able to do what I want to do.

Money To Travel
I started travel writing and photography to finance my travel in the initial days because otherwise, it can make a dent in the family finances. Once I started specialising and working in the oil and gas industry my travel cost was largely taken care of as I travelled a lot on conferences. Of course, the supplemental cost of my personal travel was taken care of by me. If you wish to raise money to travel here are a few things to remember:
Extreme focus and being good in your mainline profession. I worked all the time and being committed for 15 years is very hard but I did it. So while I travelled a lot I also worked towards it, along with balancing my family and other responsibilities. I also prefer to stay in simple places and don’t need five-star luxury. Though if the situation demands it, I will not take unnecessary risks and will spend the required money.

How to Travel Unplanned
Unplanned travel is largely done by teenagers and young people in their early 20s. I meet a lot of them as I choose to stay in hostels. Most youngsters have an unplanned itinerary. I tap into people resources and get live information on what is good to see around. The structure I have to my free-spirited travel is a return ticket. I’m ready to rough it out as well. I have stayed in a caravanserai in Yazd, Central Iran in a windowless dorm for instance.

Climbing the Tsingy Stone Forest

What Has Travelling The World Taught Me
I visited my 66th country, Madagascar recently and the more I travel, the more I realise that people essentially the same everywhere. They want a good future, a clean environment. Everywhere I go, I’m struck by the sameness of what people want. I also have an inherent trust in the goodness of human beings. I don’t think everyone is out to harm you. At best they will try to hustle with you. So in that sense, my risk perception is different. It’s what made me jump into a rickety cab in the middle of a blizzard in the evening outside Bishek airport to visit Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.

I trust people. I have realised that most people have ordinary needs and are just trying to make some extra money. I think human beings are essentially good and can be trusted. You just need to be alert and ready.

Advantages of Being An Older Traveller
I think above a certain age you become invisible and don’t have strangers hitting on you. Even hustlers don’t bother you. I’m 68 now and one of the biggest advantages of being older is the experience of years. I can anticipate things that can happen. For instance, even if I’m doing something impromptu, I’ll never leave my passport behind; I always have money stashed away in different places and as an older traveller, I’m a lot more aware of what can go wrong. I’m also blessed with instinct and it has been wonderful for me.

For all my spontaneity and self-travel, I will always ask for help where required and not take unnecessary risks. E.g., at the Tsingy stone forest in Madagascar, during a 4-hour climb risking on needle-edged jagged limestone rocks I asked the guide and porter for help as I couldn’t have done it otherwise.

Fear Factor
The only time I have known fear is when I went diving in the Great Barrier Reef with a group. Except for me, the rest were seasoned divers so the guide dropped me at one dive point while they went ahead to explore. I came up after the stipulated 45 minutes and there was no sign of the boat as I kept bobbing up and down. At that time I did think this is the end as it was a long wait but I did not give up. Other than this instance, I have only known mild apprehension, never fear. I think of the thrill before I think of the consequences, that’s how my personality is. It doesn’t matter if I die. At least I’ll die doing something.

Sudha goes scuba diving

Being A Vegetarian Traveller Across The World
Food cannot stop you from travelling. You do get something to eat almost everywhere. At Madagascar, I ate plain rice most of the time. I never carry any food. Fruits are available everywhere you go. I did find eating in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Indonesia difficult as the smell of meat and fish was overpowering for me. But you always find raw veggies you can eat, bread and fruits everywhere. Food has never come between me and travel. It’s just something to give me energy and if you can make some sacrifices about not having the perfect meal, you will never perish for want of food.

Balancing My Travel

My mom used to say, you can’t bathe in the sea if you wait for the waves to subside. Like that, life too has waves and if I wait for them to subside, I’ll never do anything. So I balance things. I am the caregiver to an aunt in Chennai and I meet her and ensure care for her but I go ahead with m travels. I organise things at home for my husband and adult children. You have only one life and it will just speed past you fast. You don’t want to regret later.

— Sudha Mahalingam spoke to Reshmi Chakraborty. All photos are courtesy Sudha Mahalingam.


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