By Neha Kirpal
The travel bug really caught Jaipur-based Neeru Saluja after retirement from her job as professor at Rajasthan University, which is when she began travelling solo. But even as a child, she was always fond of travelling. “At the drop of a hat, if my father or anybody said, ‘Let’s go,’ I would be ready to travel,” says the 65-year-old, who has travelled to 76 countries so far.
In fact, during her college days, whenever there was any opportunity for a group of friends to go out, she was always ready to join them. Neeru remembers an incident when suddenly, a strike was declared in her hostel. With no reservation or seat to sit, she sat on top of the train compartment the whole night. “That was my determination and the fun of travelling,” she recalls.
Luckily for Neeru, her husband shared her passion. After getting married, they first had a Vespa scooter and then a Chetak scooter on which they would go long distances from Jaipur to places like Shimla, Chail, Chandigarh, Agra and Nangal Dam. “Wherever the scooter would take us, we would just venture out,” she smiles in recall.
Of all her journeys, her most favourite offbeat destination as of now has been Antarctica. She says it was one of her dreams come true – not just because it is an unapproachable place, the seventh and most fascinating continent, but also because of its pristine beauty and awe-inspiring nature. “It’s just you and the sounds of the wind, icebergs moving, the sky above, the water below and snow-clad glaciers all around,” she explains.
She shares a particularly interesting travel adventure of her polar plunge into the sub-zero Antarctic water. “In the middle of nowhere, with all your jackets, layers of socks, boots, caps and gloves, you take a plunge in the water! That was some adventure,” she says.
Another adventure for Neeru was sleeping on the slope of a snow-clad mountain in just a sleeping bag on the Antarctic continent, where there are no tourist hotels or washrooms.
“There is no night, it’s all day. There is no sunset or sunrise. In the stillness of the night, you hear something rowing past you. What you see is a huge chunk of iceberg literally moving from one end to the other. After some time, you hear penguins jumping and swimming in the water. Far off in the distance, you hear the chirp of a flying albatross,” she relives the experience.
Number two on her list are the Galápagos Islands, where she saw a huge hundred-year-old tortoise, Diego, which has fathered more than 900 siblings. She says it was amazing to see the landscape of the tortoise kingdom.
“The entire vastness of the area, its different flora and fauna, the volcanic rocks, their eruption, and to see the penguins jump, dance and leap all around your motorboat when it is swishing by into the wilderness, it’s magical,” she describes.
Vietnam was another memorable destination, where she walked over fields of thousands of bones and skulls. “It shows you how humans can behave with their own kind,” she says.
Then there was the old Soviet Union, where during the Second World War, the Russians had built bunkers underground with the complete military paraphernalia and strong metal walls.
Not all her travel adventures have been desirable though. A memory that still brings a shiver down her spine is when she was travelling from Mexico back to India via Cuba. The driver first dropped her to the wrong airport, and struggling with language barriers, she managed to get a taxi to the international airport – only to find out that she could not board the flight as she needed a multiple entry visa.
While cautioning that travelling solo requires guts, she also adds that there are several learnings one gains through all the varied experiences. For Neeru, it was the survival instinct – the fact that she can adjust in any circumstances.
“I can sleep anywhere – whether on snow, in a sleeping bag, in a seven-star hotel or the ground,” she says.
Further, she enjoys trying out and experimenting with different kinds of cuisines and drinks of the regions where she visits. “There are times when you think another person is not comfortable with you, so you mind your business, let them be, and yet be friends,” she explains.
The biggest learning, she adds, is to learn to accept the world as it is without being judgmental and to enjoy every minute in life.
Based on her encounters, she gives five of her top tips for solo women travellers:
• Make sure you plan your itinerary well before you venture out – everything from your flight tickets, pickup and drop at the airport, hotel bookings and tours. If you plan everything, you’ll have all your vouchers in your hand, and you’ll always feel safe and secure.
• Carry all your documents in your carry bag and also on your phone, which can be accessed offline easily.
• Travel light. Try to mix and match all your clothing. The rule is to try to wear everything that you carry at least two or three times during your trip. Try not to carry a one-time item wear. The idea is to enjoy the adventure of the place you are visiting; it’s not about your clothes.
• Carry your comfort food or energy boosters in small pouches instead of in one large packet. Whenever you are going out, you can quickly grab a pouch in your pocket or handbag to munch along the way whenever you feel hungry.
• Always go with an open, flexible mind. Enjoy what there is to enjoy, and don’t worry too much.
As for her travel goals in 2020, Neeru says she has already signed up for South Korea, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine this year. “In the future, I also want to go to the North Pole,” she beams.
First published in eShe’s February 2020 issue