Off The Beaten Path : Travel Tales Of Unusual Travellers

28-year-old Vasudha Pradhan is a web designer by profession but a traveller at heart. She worked for an online portal and was making good money. One fine day she gave up her job as her boss didn’t give her leave for a trip that she had planned to the Scandinavian countries. And she doesn’t regret throwing up a well-paying job for her passion for travel. She now freelances.

“Each time I return from my trip I take up a freelance project and the moment I have made enough for my next trip I pack my bags! And I don’t leave a project halfway but plan the trip in such a way that I leave only after my work is done.” She is only 28 but has travelled extensively within the country as well as outside.

And Vasudha is one of the many such passionate travellers we met on our journey for this story. We chatted them up as either they were on their way to catch a plane, booking tickets for their next journey or during one of their many trips.

Travelling is not just a hobby. It is more and much much more. It is life. It puts things into perspective and allows you to see that the world is not about you. It is about how other people live. It broadens your perspective. It is such a beautiful experience that it humbles you. As Hands Christian Andersen said, “To travel is to live.” Travel not only changes your perspective on life it changes life.

A lot many of us love to travel but end up making excuses. We don’t find enough time. We don’t have the budget. We will try and go next year. And so on. But we met up with some die-hard travellers who have literally lived their lives from a suitcase. They have spent more time outside their homes than inside. And what a wealth of knowledge and experiences they have gathered.

They are the modern day Ibn Battuta. If the Moroccan scholar travelled continuously for almost 30 years and saw a lot of the world, the travellers we feature here are also almost there. Ibn Battuta considered as history’s most famous traveller dictated an account of his journeys which today is considered a  book on history. Two of the travellers we interviewed have also published their travel experiences.

When Kolkatta based Sunil Mehta got married in 1979 he planned on retiring from business when he would turn 50. He was in his twenties when he took this decision.  He had a thriving business but that was not enough. He wanted to see the world. So he hung up his work boots at 50 and wore his sneakers. In the past 10 years, he has done 100 trips which is an average of 10 trips annually!

Sunil Mehta at Budhha View Point,Thimphu, Bhutan

“Both my kids knew that I would retire in 2007. But I had a setback in 2006. I was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys and had to get one surgically removed. I thought retirement was now not a good option. But my son who lived in the US convinced me that I should stick to my original plan and should now begin my travels. And on May 1, 2007, I went on my first trip. In July 2017 I celebrated my 100th trip and 60th birthday as well.”

Sunil has been blessed that his life partner Neela is also a passionate traveller and accompanies on all his trips. “In fact, she has travelled more than I have,” says Sunil. “She also travels with her all-women group from Kolkatta and has, therefore, outbeaten me in the number of trips.”

Sunil Mehta at Ross Island

Sunil is just not an avid traveller but also documents each and every trip that he undertakes. “I have a list of 16 best places to visit before you die out of the 173 trips that I have undertaken in India. Each place is complete with descriptions and pictures. I gifted this book to all my friends on my 60th birthday. I also have a list of places that I have gone to in alphabetical order on my phone which has names and numbers of hotels to stay in, places to eat in, local drivers and tourist guides.”

Sharing some interesting travel experiences Sunil says, “We had gone to Jaisalmer and visited the Tanot Devi temple which is situated at the Indo-Pak border. Over 3000 bombs were thrown at this temple but not one went off! Now a museum has been built here which houses all these bombs. I had a very unique experience here. My friend who was also with us on this trip is a professional photographer. I had handed over my camera to him to take some of our pictures. Inadvertently he had left it on which drained off the battery and we were unable to take any images. We tried everything but it didn’t just work. We were so upset as that meant I would have no documented evidence of this place. We did the darshan and left the temple. After coming out of the temple we once again checked to see if the camera would start. And to our surprise it did and the battery was charged to the fullest! Such incidents leave you with a sense of faith and belief in the unknown.”

Sunil Mehta at Chitradurga Fort

Isn’t travelling an expensive hobby? And more so when you travel so frequently? “I believe in budget holidays. None of my trips are steep as  I am a member of a club share that offers me a week’s stay each time for just about Rs 10000. Moreover, I avail of good discounts as I book my tickets and hotels well in advance.”

Though Sunil and Neela have travelled all over the world he says he prefers an Indian destination over an international one.  “I rate domestic travel on top of my list. If I were to become the travel minister of India I would make our country the most sought after tourist destination in the world!  Let me cite how…Once when I was touring USA I came across a street in New York which is a no-traffic street. It is lined on both sides with shops and has music playing and several other live shows as well. Whilst Neela went shopping I sat on the street and watched a film. Why can’t this be replicated in India? It is quite common in many European places as well.”

Sunil believes that travelling with likeminded people is the key to a good trip. He has his fixed group of friends who often travel with him. His brother and bhabhi too often join them. Neela says she enjoys these trips and in fact, all her dreams have been fulfilled now. ‘Live life to the fullest’, is Sunil’s motto in life and he is doing so. His enthusiasm and zest for life are unmatched. Already planning for their next trips to Vietnam, USA, Canada the Mehtas have just returned from Delhi, Bangkok and Krabi.

Sunil Mehta on his travels

He says he rarely travels alone and always plans for the next 4 trips well in advance. “I have planned all my trips until August. I never travel during Puja or Diwali.”

Travel tips from this veteran traveller:

1. Never raise your voice at a local. Most tourists do this and end up getting beaten up!

2. Don’t lose your temper at any class 4 employee and they are ones who serve you. If you do so they will spoil your trip with bad service. In fact, I always carry a local delicacy for them as a tip.

3. When hiring a car/taxi insist on an all-inclusive rate or else you lose a lot by way of parking charges, toll amount, etc.

For actor Pragati Mehra travel is life. “My love for travel began as a kid. As a child, you always travel with your parents. We too had dedicated holidays as kids as all of us love to travel. In fact, I get my love for travel from my mum. Once I grew up and became an actor in 2011 I reduced my travel a bit but soon realized that I needed to take breaks to fulfil my urge for travel. On an average, I travel every three months. But there have been times I do one trip every month. After I quit Uttaran I found I had more time to travel as I wasn’t doing long shows.  When I was doing Uttaran I never told my producers if I was planning a trip as I felt they would not write my track. But later I realized it was not worth it. My mum too advised me that since I am so fond of travelling I need not sacrifice anything for it.”

Pragati Mehra during her travels

Pragati travels extensively and not just does luxury travel but also does a lot of adventure trips. “I don’t plan much. I can travel on a whim like I did to Finland. I had just returned from a trip to the USA and some friends were planning to go to see the Northern lights. I too booked my tickets. It was one of the most memorable trips I have done.”

For the actress, it’s the call of nature that gets her fired up. And it doesn’t always have to be a fancy or luxurious trip. “In 2016 I enrolled for the International Yoga Festival at Rishikesh. I am a non-swimmer but I even went river rafting. Though I am not a yoga enthusiast I had a super time. Another one such adventure trip was a road trip to Spiti valley. I love to drive and this trip turned out to be a fantastic one. I consider this trip as one of my best trips as driving in the rivers was so exciting. I was on my own on this trip as I didn’t know who the other travellers would be.”

Pragati Mehra striking a pose during her travels

Isn’t travelling so extensively heavy on the pocket? “Until now I have been lucky with finances. Yes, I agree if I didn’t travel I would have had more money in the bank. So one has to sacrifice something in order to get something. Like at one point in time I wanted a bigger house. But I decided against it as I would have to curtail my travel to pay those EMIs! I am a practical traveller and never go overboard spending.”

But one thing she never does is to travel with only women travellers as she admits she finds it boring! “I always love to travel with close friends or my mum. In fact my mum is my best travel companion. And I discovered this a few years ago when we went to Goa. None of my friends wanted to go to Goa and I was keen. So I asked my mum to join me. All my friends were laughing at me saying who goes with their parents to Goa? But it turned out to be a landmark trip for me. Both of us love to eat and both of us don’t drink so we would get up in the morning and explore all cafes for local food. We both enjoyed it as we share the same likes and dislikes and I never regretted taking my mum along.”

Pragati Mehra on a trip

Have you repeated destinations? “There is so much of the world left to be explored that I rarely do this. But there a few places I do go back to. Simla is one of them. I love quaint little places and then it doesn’t matter if I have to go back a second time.”

Pragati Mehra during her travels

She says her best trips have been to Finland, Arctic Circle and the road trip to Spiti. Fortunately, she confesses she has never had any major untoward incident. But yes she recalls one such incident when she went to NE states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Assam. “I was doing a road trip to the NE states when a car stopped us on the highway. Some men in fatigues got out and surrounded us. They wanted so our papers and other identification. We were a bit flustered as they looked tough. We showed them the papers and they left after verifying and let us go. We realized later that since our car was very muddy as we were had dirt tracks they thought we could have been terrorists.”

Over 50 trips to USA , 20 to Disneyworld, 20 to Las Vegas, 7 trips to erstwhile USSR, 4 to E. Africa, 4 to China,  and not counting trips to  S. Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore Turkey, Scandinavia, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Dubai and almost all of India. And still travelling! Who could have packed some much in a lifetime? Meet the intrepid traveller Sudhir Shah.

“I always enjoyed travel but serious travel began somewhere in 1979 when I went to Russia, Eastern Europe, London and Rome for 28 days. I was part of a delegation of 40 lawyers who went to attend a conference.  The flight was empty and it was just us on it. I had my first glass of champagne on the flight. When we alighted at Moscow it was bitterly cold as it was October. It was an iron country then and we were really scared. Everybody had to declare how much currency we were carrying as we were allowed only 500 US$. All I knew was that the Russians were happy if you gave them chewing gum and cigarettes. I had carried 50 packets of both which I gifted to all I met. “

A glimpse from Sudhir Shah’s travels

Though Sudhirbhai has wonderful memories of the country as the natural beauty he says is unparalleled a subsequent halt at Moscow in 1983 left a bitter taste in his mouth. “I was returning from London and had a stopover at Moscow as I was on my way to St Petersburg. As I had about 5 hours to kill I made my way to a bar near the airport. I was carrying a pouch which had all my money and my passport and return ticket in it. As I was seated in the bar two boys snatched my pouch and ran out. I ran after them but they disappeared. I called the cops and in all this, I missed the flight. I requested the cops to inform my family that I was stuck in Russia. Those were not the days of mobiles and since I had no money I could use a public phone as well. Moreover, my return flight to India was after 3 days and I was not allowed to overstay. I went to the Embassy where I met an Indian student who was kind enough to offer me his room to stay for 3 days. The cops informed me the next day that they had found the thieves and that I needed to identify them. They were produced in court and after I identified them they were sent to Siberia prison for 6 months and after which debarred from entering Moscow. And yes my passport, ticket and money were found.”

Sudhir Shah on one of his voyages

Sudhirbhai says he never plans his next trip. It is always on a whim. “The impromptu trips are more exciting. Years ago I won a long drawn property dispute for a client in which he regained rights to an entire building. It was a momentous event and I wanted to celebrate in style. I booked tickets for 4 of us (the client and his wife and my wife and me) for Paris just for a dinner at the top of Eiffel tower. We flew there on Friday, had a lovely dinner in a restaurant on the top of Eiffel Tower and returned on Sunday!”

With the world so vast what is it that attracts him to repeat a destination? “Each time you visit a place it offers something unique. Moreover, the mood sets the tone for that place. The company too matters. So when I go to say New York for a conference, my mood is serious as against when I go to New York for Xmas. Hence I see it differently.”

Sudhir Shah with his wife Sangita Joshi on his travels

Though all his trips are not extravagant he does enjoy staying in heritage hotels and prefers centrally located hotels. “I have met so many interesting people on my trips and have made many friends across the globe. What intrigues me is different cultures, different traditions and more than anything the history of a place.”

Sudhirbhai has penned his travel experiences in 6 books on Turkey, Paris, Norway, China, Switzerland and Holland. He has also written 6 booklets on the beauty of repeat travels.  He is writing his next three on Vienna, Prague and Budapest. The veteran traveller offers some excellent tips for fellow travellers. “If you want an economical holiday always opt for a conducted tour. They cost less and all your needs are taken care of. Moreover, they offer a safe option for single women travelling alone. Another important thing is to get your currency exchanged at the airport as, as soon as you land, you will need local currency the minute you step out of the airport. And lastly never take visa on arrival procedure for granted as one can be misguided.”

Sudhir Shah during a trip

And soon Sudhirbhai is off to Portugal and his annual pilgrimage to USA. It is no exaggeration to call him the modern age Ibn Battuta.

So whilst a lot of travellers opt for ‘touristy’ destinations or places that are frequented my most Monisha Tasker prefers the road less travelled. She and her family are globetrotters with a difference. One can say they have travelled to the most exotic and almost virgin destinations of the world. In fact, it is safe to add that some of the places she mentions were unheard of. How many of us have heard of Landmannalaugar, other Mayan ruins, Angel falls, Lalibela, Cannakaale?

Monisha Tasker at Kilimanjaro

The Taskers do not just tour off beaten places but as they are adventure enthusiasts a lot of their trips are trekking expeditions to unknown places.

Based in USA since 1982 the Taskers love travelling. We caught up with Monisha on her recent trip to India.

When did the travel bug bite her?

“From the time I was a child and would read about or hear of places both near and far that were interesting.  When I would read about a place in a book, magazine or in a poem it would inspire me to visit that place or similar places.

Growing up in India my parents took me on many trips both by train and road all over the country.   As a teenager, I travelled with groups or school trips as well as hiking the various forts dotting the Sahayadris. Being a history buff and rock hound – the area around Aurangabad and the Ajanta caves, as well as other caves, rock-cut architecture and the old forts were always fascinating to me.

Monisha Tasker on her travels

The most memorable trips include road trips to Gujarat, Kutch and Rajasthan… climbing up Girnar with my grandfather and visiting Sravan bel Gola in southern India as well as a road trip that encompassed all the 5 jyotirlingas in Maharashtra. In fact, in those days the road to Bhimashankar was so bad that going against our calculations we only reached very late at night. There was no hotel or guest house. The priest saw us and offered to put us up at his house. We stayed in the cowshed that night, bathed in the hot water that was heated on a wood-fired stove and had a real taste of rural splendour.”

Talking about some of the best places she has been to Monisha says, “It’s hard to define what the best place I have seen is – since I have so much left to see and most places we visit have their own beauty, charm or weirdness that sticks with you.It would be difficult to compare the spectacular natural beauty of the coloured hills of Landmannalaugar in Iceland  or the misty tree-dotted slopes of the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia to the wonders created by human endeavour in Florence, Vienna, Agra, or the modern wonders coming up each day in cities like Shanghai and Dubai they all have a place in the best places I visited or the best food I ate or the most vile drink I consumed, the music we heard or the friends we made…

A click during Monisha Tasker’s trip to Peru and Bolivia

However, I guess one could say…that watching the sunrise over Africa at the summit of Kilimanjaro definitely is very very high on the best place to be at the right time.”

Having travelled so extensively Monisha says she has rarely had a bad experience.

“In general, we have been blessed with no major serious events on our trips. We have had my wallet stolen in Barcelona, had our Landrover breakdown on Safari in Tanzania, missed flights due to weather or traffic…or eating raw meat in Ethiopia and getting food poisoning… but these are merely inconveniences and not a major deal since they were solved.

We are very adventurous eaters and love to try new foods and drinks so usually the funny experiences revolve around food and drink …where we once had to try the local moonshine which was served out of the very pretty bottles in China and turned out to smell and taste like something out of a stable floor … or when we thought we were ordering meat and got steamed eel instead…”

For how long does she prep for a new trip after returning from another one?

“It all depends ….sometimes the trips kind of just happen..and it takes only about a month or so to plan..other times we plan  8-10 month or even a year in advance…”

Monisha Tasker on her travels with other travellers

Monisha says she has done trips either only with her husband or in a group and has enjoyed all equally. “We have done trips with groups and just by ourselves.Our hiking trips are mostly with the group Mountain Hiking Holidays where we hike/ travel in a group of about 8 people with a local guide and sometimes also a trip leader from the US. We have done only 1 trip with a large group. This was to China led by the MIT professor of Chinese History where we were a group of about 20 people. Most of our trips are about a week to 2 weeks averaging about 10 days.”

What’s on her bucket list now?

“Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, Antarctica, Scandinavia, the NewZealand Alps, Newfoundland and Labrador, The Galapagos and Ecuador, travel across Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Australia and Micronesia, Petra in the Middle East, Silk Road travels, Baanf and Lake Louis, hiking the Grand Tetons, visiting mezcal growers in central Mexico, Tikal and other Mayan ruins in Gautemala/Honduras… rainforest of the Amazon, Angel Falls in Venezuela, South Africa- Victoria falls… The list is kind of never-ending…”

Her tips:

1. Most important tip: Be ready to be flexible and patient. Remember this is a vacation so no need to get stressed out if things don’t go EXACTLY as planned and find an adventure in the small things you see and do each day of your trip.

2. Try as many new foods/drinks as you can within your personal dietary limitations…find a way to see if you can inspire people to cook variations of their traditional foods for you. A smile and gestures go a long way even if you don’t know the language… carry a water bottle and a hat everywhere.

3.Even if travelling with a group …do a bit of research on the places you go to… so you can get a background on them in advance – it will enhance your experience even more … for example, it may be wonderful to see the dome of the cathedral in Florence – but is awe-inspiring if you have read about what it took for Filippo Brunelleschi to design it and how he came to be the architect of the dome in the first place. Or to visit Gibraltar and stand looking out to Africa and know that historically the Greeks called it one of the pillars of Hercules as Hercules is said to have created the Straits and to know that the modern word comes from the Moorish name Jebel Tariq. It makes that much more exciting to then visit the place and know it as a rock that was occupied by humans since Neanderthals first came there… and wonder what the early humans thought of the great stalactite caves there.

Some of the trips the Taskers have been on:

1. Lake Tana, Blue Nile Fall, Simien Mountains, Gondar Lalibela, Axum in Ethiopia.

2. Hiking in Iceland (2014).

3. A driving trip through northern Italy (2015).

4. Hiking in Hokkaido.

5. Safari /Kilimanjaro/ Zanzibar 18 days.

6. A driving trip through Northern Spain (dinosaurs to Dali).

7. Driving Trip through Southern Spain Malaga, Rhonda Gibralter Xerex Alhambra (2015).

8. Turkey – Istanbul to Gallipolli, Troy, Cannakaale, to Bursa and then back on a ferry across the sea of Marmara.

9. Hiking the Dolomites in 2016.

10. Walking the Great Wall  (with breaks) from the Ocean to Beijing starting from  – Laolongtou or “The Old Dragon’s Head” is part of the Great Wall of China. It is where the Great Wall ends to the East and leads into the Bohai Sea and ending at Mutinanyu near Beijing.

The bottom line for all these travel buffs can only be- Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

‘Cocktail Zindagi’ is not just a publication, it is a journey in itself in which you play an important character. We work to bring you stories not only from the crème de la crème but also from the grass root level.We also write content that portrays the beautiful shades of life, thus the name ‘Cocktail Zindagi’.