“Travelling the road, last known is where I want to be/ My compass directing, electing, an open road with golden trees”
These lines from a song by the Canadian indie rock band Paper Lions may resonate with the unexpected number of people, across age groups, who have taken to travel during the pandemic—setting out on long road trips, often without a destination in mind. As the covid-19 outbreak drives home the transience of life, they are seeking solace in small joys and meaningful encounters.
“International travel has still not opened up as much as before, and people are wary of the various touch points at airports or on trains and in buses, especially during long-distance travel,” says Neeti Mehra of BeejLiving, a Mumbai-based slow living and sustainability strategist. “Hence you will find a significant number of road journeys taking place. People are travelling to smaller, remote places and staying in boutique hotels and home-stays, which they might not have visited earlier. These experiential, immersive journeys offer a slice of culture and help you connect with the region, its people, and are often transformational.” The focus is on de-stressing, travelling within as much as without, and journeying responsibly, following all the covid-19 protocols.
The focus is on healing the mind and gaining a new understanding of life and the world. While some are trying out life in different cities, exploring notions of home and belonging, others simply want to test their endurance and embrace challenges. Ultimately, each journey is about the joy of living in the moment. As Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
MOHIT RAJ KAPOOR, LAHAUL: The road to mental well-being
His first long-distance ride, in 2014, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari had Mohit Raj Kapoor hooked to cycling. Thereafter, he would set off on extended bike-packing tours whenever he got a chance, enjoying the feel of the open road.
In 2016, Jaipur-based Kapoor, 24, spent a year riding from India to Malaysia. Three years ago, he took on the mountains of Nepal while touring the Annapurna Circuit. And in between, he took shorter rides around the country.
When the pandemic struck, he enjoyed the early days home-bound with family. A few weeks later, though, he felt he needed a break. “I have bipolar disorder and anxiety issues. It got really frustrating to be holed up indoors. I was unable to deal with it. I would often step out, post-midnight, to cycle in the garden next door,” he says.
When he found a trekking route through the Aravalli range around Jaipur, in his backyard so to say, he set out on a three-day ride. He rediscovered the solace he had experienced while riding solo in the wilderness.
“That ride gave me perspective. I realised that a fresh start would be good for my health. By July (2020), I had set up a base near Manali (Himachal Pradesh). When I managed to get to Lahaul a few weeks later, I knew this was where I wanted to be,” Kapoor says.
The idea was to experience the slow life in the mountains, especially in winter, when Lahaul comes to a standstill. He rented a room in Keylong and started riding to the villages nearby. The distances increased as time went by, sometimes up to 60km one way, the longer rides taking him to Triloknath in the west and Sumdo in Zanskar, up north.
“It would take longer than usual because the route was often blocked by snow and I would have to find a way through. There were occasions when I would reach a village, only to discover that everyone had moved out for the winter. There wouldn’t be a soul along the way. The few times I met the odd shepherd, he would have a good laugh when he saw me on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
The kindness of people touched a chord. When there was sudden snowfall, they would ask him to stay back and leave the next day. “Another time, I had a nasty fall and had food brought to me until I healed. There’s a sense of bonding in the community here, people are a lot more sensitive to others,” says Kapoor.
He would often park his bicycle and set out on a hike in the hope of spotting a snow leopard. Though the cat remained elusive, Kapoor soaked in the antics of a Himalayan red fox and the splendour of a herd of ibex on a few occasions. The stillness and solitude, while spending hours in the saddle or high up on a slope, had a calming effect.
“The pandemic made me realise that things can go wrong at any moment. You just have to remain calm and deal with everything that comes at you. I am still on medication but am more conscious about my well-being these days,” he says.
JEUNE LOBO AND AVIN PAIS, MANGALURU: Homeschooling, away from home
The Lobo-Pais family has just returned from a trip around Mangaluru in Karnataka, where they live on a farm in Moodbidri. They visited friends, discovered waterfalls, went on short treks... “We are always travelling in search of new cultures, landscapes and food,” says Jeune Lobo, 36, a former content writer.
This quest has informed many of the family’s resolutions. In 2018, Lobo and her husband, Avin Pais, an IT consultant, made a conscious decision to move from Bengaluru to Mangaluru and homeschool their children—eight-year-old twins Ethan and Elena. They wanted a life without boundaries, with no conventional schooling or jobs holding them back from doing the things they dreamt of.
“And the pandemic, in a way, validated this decision of moving out of the city. This period has also taught us a lesson—cherish the freedom when you have it. In the past one-and-a-half years, when we have travelled, we have not limited ourselves with a destination. Rather, there is something to be savoured along the way,” says Lobo.
Earlier this year, they embarked on a three-month road trip. The initial plan was to travel to Gujarat to spend some time with friends. But then they decided to journey on for as long as they could. “We halted the trip after three months due to the covid-19 restrictions during the second wave,” she adds.
In those three months, they experienced the kindness of strangers and discovered little-explored places. “We would say, let’s drive for three hours and see where we reach. We avoided national highways and used small roads that would take us to lakes and forests,” says Lobo.
They drove through the Rann of Kutch and Saurashtra to coastal Maharashtra, and Diu. They chanced upon beautiful isolated stretches in Diu, and when Lobo posted an image on Instagram, people couldn’t believe it was a place in India.
The family always carries camping gear, blankets and an induction stove so they can cook for themselves even when staying with friends—they don’t want to miss out on their favourite food. Lobo also carries a cooker that suits a wood fire. The children know how to start a fire, so they can help. “My husband works whenever time permits. To ensure that the kids don’t get bored, we have books, art supplies and toys,” says Lobo.
Now the family is waiting to pack up and head out again—this time to immerse themselves in the lesser-known coastal cultures of southern India.
AMANDA SODHI, KOLKATA: Finding her own tribe
What do you do if you can’t get along with your family? What does home mean then? These questions acquired urgency for 34-year-old Amanda Sodhi when she was living alone in Kolkata last year. As the country began to unlock, she headed to Kashmir for a workation in October. Mulling over these questions while sitting in a shikara on Dal Lake, she hit upon the idea of embarking on a year-long experiment—she would spend a month in one city and move to another, to investigate notions of home and belonging. She planned to visit 12 but trimmed the figure to 10 after the devastating second covid-19 wave.
Having grown up in Washington, DC, Sodhi moved to India nine years ago. She lived in Mumbai, moving to Kolkata three years ago. No place felt like home. The nagging feeling of not having a strong bond with family or a place bothered her. “People are conditioned to define home as where one’s family is. And, in desi culture, a woman being estranged from her family is usually frowned upon, irrespective of whether toxicity exists in the relationship or not,” says Sodhi, who is in Puri, Odisha, right now.
At a time when most of her friends are busy with their spouses and children, the lack of a home or familial bonds can be disheartening, even more so during a pandemic. “I haven’t felt like I truly belong anywhere. These feelings have had mental health implications,” says Sodhi, founder of Pen Paper Dreams, which conducts creative writing workshops. Although she lived alone, she hadn’t cut ties with family—till the pandemic. “Suddenly, the illusion of having a family disappeared and that disarmed me,” she says.
A freelance content writer and social media consultant, Sodhi began her journey in Hyderabad. She has since spent time in Port Blair (Andamans), Ooty (Tamil Nadu), Srinagar (Jammu & Kashmir), Manali (Himachal Pradesh) and Imphal (Manipur). She will be travelling to three more cities. She believes 30 days is enough to understand whether a city sparks one’s interest.
She feels fortunate that her varied experiences have helped her grow. She realised people would often share their deepest secrets with her just because they knew she would be leaving at some point.
She has had a chance to look within too. Having lived on her own since she was 24, Sodhi would often feel guilty that she wanted both independence and meaningful connections. “This year, I am finally owning it; it need not always be either-or. Even gypsies need a tribe, right?” she says. By the end of the year, she hopes to get some clarity on whether it is possible to have a sense of home without a family—if she can be her entire family herself. “I am trying to find answers. But the fact that I am exploring these questions is a good start.”
HARSH MAN RAI, GURUGRAM: A ride of gratitude during the pandemic
Last month, Harsh Man Rai rode his motorcycle through Himachal Pradesh on what he calls a “trip of gratitude”. “I have not seen some of my friends there for one-and-a-half years. Most of them run travel-related businesses, which have come to a standstill. This felt like a thanksgiving ride to catch up with them and see how they have been doing,” says Rai, who was the founding editor of Rolling Stone and Man’s World magazines in India. He now runs Helmet Stories, an online magazine, and a travel company dedicated to bespoke motorcycling adventures.
The impromptu trip took him from the apple orchards of Rohru in Shimla district to the cold desert highlands of Spiti, through places like Chanshal, near Shimla, and Chhatru, near Mandi. He would reach a friend’s house, call up another and head there a few days later. “I had planned to go up to Ladakh and Zanskar but the rains wreaked havoc so I came back to Gurugram (Haryana),” he adds.
Rai, who will turn 60 soon, has been an adventure-seeking motorcyclist throughout his adult life. But he says the journeys before and since the pandemic have been very different. “I don’t take anything for granted now. After spending days in isolation, when you witness the enormity of the great outdoors, it is something else.”
Last November, he undertook a deeply personal and emotional journey on his 2020 BMW G 310GS to Nuranang in Arunachal Pradesh. This is where his father, Major Hasta Bahadur Rai, and his battalion, 4 Garhwal Rifles, fought the People’s Liberation Army during the 1962 war with China. His father was captured. “I always wanted to see the place, terrain and people, and give a shape to the stories I had heard from him and his colleagues at reunions,” he says.
Earlier plans to visit the site had not worked out. “Finally, in November, we got a little window....” Four riders set out on the 20-day trip that was filmed for an OTT platform, MX Player. “By the time we finished, God knows how many covid-19 tests we had got done. But we wanted to be doubly sure at every point—it was the responsible thing to do. The absence of tourists and people on the road was quite remarkable and we got to witness a slice of motorcycle riding we rarely ever get to see,” he says.
AMRITA AND ROBIN NAKAI, AND USHA HOODA, CHANDIGARH: On a quest to leave the senior citizen label behind
I hope you don’t refer to us as senior citizens in your story,” remarks Amrita Nakai. She is fed up with the label. In January, together with her husband, Robin Nakai, and friend, Usha Hooda, all in their 60s, she set off on a 4,500km road trip from Chandigarh to the Andamans. They created a hashtag, #ChandigarhtoAndamans, on Instagram to document their journey. The account now has over 500 photographs of their Mahindra Scorpio coated in dust, selfies of “beach bumming” in Goa, and eating platefuls of food.
The three friends, who have known each other since their college days, have always taken spur-of-the-moment calls on travel. The 40-day road journey this year was possibly their longest and most ambitious. It began one evening when the Nakais decided they needed an adventure. “We just needed to get out and travel, since we love it. We were stuck at home more or less during 2020, though we were lucky to live in an open area surrounded by greenery,” says Amrita. They called their friend, Hooda, who agreed to come along—it was just like college.
Robin, the most organised with paperwork, made sure they completed their covid-19 tests within a few hours, got the car ready, packed, and set off at 6am for Udaipur, Rajasthan, the day after they tested negative for covid-19. Amrita says: “We don’t spend a lot of time planning. We just take off.” They travelled through Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andamans and Puducherry but had to cut short the trip and fly back from Chennai when Amrita’s sister suffered a fall. They stayed mostly with family or friends—Nakai’s son lives in Mumbai, Hooda’s son is in the Andamans, they have friends in Goa and Chennai, where they left their vehicle.
The three friends have a knack for picking the most scenic roads. Instead of the shorter and quicker highway from Mumbai to Goa , they drove along the coastal road to savour the expanse of sea vistas. On an average, they would spend seven-eight hours on the road daily, starting early, making pit stops and aiming to reach their destination before dusk.
Amrita says: “We would stop whenever we wanted to and take in the scenery. We carried our coffee for such breaks and ate at dhabas. There was no plan.” When I remark that the trip sounds amazing, she asks, “Why, wouldn’t you do it that way too?”
MEENAKSHI SAI, COIMBATORE: Making memories
One of Meenakshi Sai’s most poignant memories from her trip to Ladakh in July is lunching with Goba Ali in Thang village, near the India-Pakistan border—special permission is needed to visit it. “He was separated from his family after the 1971 war,” says Sai, who spent two weeks driving around Ladakh. Ali, a farmer, reminisced about the way he would communicate with his family using flashlights, recalls Sai, 49, managing director of the Lakeside resort in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. She had read about Ali and went to Thang specially to meet him.
She likes exploring new countries—she has been to almost 90—by road. “I would land in a country, rent a car and drive,” says Sai, who has completed three major cross-country road trips: India to Thailand in 2016, Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) to the UK in 2017 and Coimbatore to St Petersburg, Russia, in 2019.
The pandemic forced her to look within India. The Delhi to Ladakh road trip was her third long trip this year with a friend, after fortnight-long trips within Meghalaya in January and Arunachal Pradesh in April. “We didn’t do hotels,” says Sai. Instead, they camped or found small home-stays.
It helps, of course, that she loves driving. When she was a child, her father, a cricket fan, would take the family on road trips to Chennai or Hyderabad for matches. “I would sit up front with him,” recalls Sai. This year, she avoided tourist spots and explored places like Drass, the second-coldest inhabited region in the world, and Dahanu village, where the Drokpa live. Sai, who has now bought a camper van and is fixing it, plans to keep travelling. “I hope to hit the road in a month or two in the van,” she says. “I am really looking forward to it.”
AVDHESH SHARMA, KOSI KALAN: A momentous journey on foot that tested every bit of endurance
On 26 August, 30-year-old Avdhesh Sharma completed a momentous journey. The professional photographer had covered 4,200km on foot, from one of the northernmost parts of India, Thang, to the southernmost tip, Kanyakumari. As he crossed 11 states and three Union territories, Sharma survived avalanches, floods and skin-searing temperatures. The kindness of strangers and diversity of experiences made up for all the challenges.
It all started in March last year when he was stuck at his uncle’s Delhi home during the first nationwide lockdown. He started missing his home-town, Kosi Kalan, in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district. So he borrowed his uncle’s cycle, got a curfew pass and pedalled all the way home. It was the first time he had ridden such a long distance—and it proved to be a life-changing moment.
Once the lockdown restrictions eased, in October, he decided to cycle through Uttarakhand, a region he was familiar with; he had helped in the rescue effort during the Kedarnath flash floods of 2013. He was aiming for a round trip of 1,000km. Once he entered Uttarakhand, the milestone of Mana village—the last settlement before the border with Tibet—kept coming up in conversation. At Rishikesh, instead of taking the route to Mussoorie as planned, he turned towards Mana. That 38-day trip taught him a few lessons and left him longing for more such journeys.
“While cycling, it’s tough to go uphill or on an uneven track with luggage of 30-40kg. As a teenager, I always wanted to cover India, from north to south, and I decided to accomplish this on foot,” says Sharma. He decided to test his endurance and embarked on the L2K hike (Ladakh to Kanyakumari). To challenge himself further, he opted to spend the winter in Ladakh, summer in central India and monsoon along the coast. He also set aside a couple of days on the L2K hike to get vaccinated in his home-town. “I knew that I might feel feverish after the jab and would need a safe space to recover. So I planned to be in Kosi Kalan at that time,” he says.
He crossed five passes, was caught up in an avalanche in Baralacha La and had to be rescued by officials of the Border Roads Organisation. He ended up in Khardung village, Ladakh, amidst snowfall and a weekend curfew. Home-stays were closed and there was no place to pitch a tent. That’s when he met an ex-armyman, Mutup, who gave him the key to one of his two homes and told him he could use the provisions there. “In covid-19 times, who trusts strangers so implicitly? I will never forget his kindness. I am still in touch with him. And, on my part, to be a responsible traveller, I took care of all covid-19 protocols and undertook RT-PCR tests several times on the way,” says Sharma.
During the journey, he started the RGB for Life campaign, focusing on blood donation, environment and water conservation. “I feel if you can’t take care of a plant, don’t plant it just for a photo opportunity or to create records. On the way, whenever I planted trees, I appointed caretakers (requesting volunteers) from the local villages or towns,” he says.
He has now applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for this trip, and is planning to embark on an east to west tour of India, or cover all the districts of the country.