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Six passports, 65 countries—one woman’s misadventures

  • In her 50s, Sudha Mahalingam became a fearless explorer with the stomach of a backpacking student
  • Accounts of her trips to Spain and Morocco, Borneo and Iran have been compiled in 'The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy'

(clockwise from left) Sudha Mahalingam in the Amazon jungle; participating in a rally from Kolkata to Kunming, China; and skydiving near Ayers Rock in Australia.
(clockwise from left) Sudha Mahalingam in the Amazon jungle; participating in a rally from Kolkata to Kunming, China; and skydiving near Ayers Rock in Australia. (Photo courtesy: Sudha Mahalingam)

Sudha Mahalingam, 68, spent most of her life travelling to staid destinations with her cautious, organized bureaucrat husband. Then life threw the world at her.

Somewhere around 2002, when she quit journalism and became an energy sector analyst for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, her inbox became a map of invitations to conferences across the world. It was a time when the geopolitics of oil was shifting focus to emerging consumer nations such as China and India; everyone was on the lookout for Asian energy experts.

In her 50s, Mahalingam became a fearless explorer with the stomach of a backpacking student. Six passports and 65 countries later, she has written The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy (Penguin, 299), a breakneck compilation of her misadventures.

Like the time she trekked through a virgin Borneo rainforest in a downpour in 2012, dodging poisonous fluorescent toadstools, giant leeches and killer ants, her feet sinking in the sodden floor, pausing to wipe her foggy glasses every few minutes. Or the time in 2005 when she was accidentally locked in a minaret at the Jameh Mosque in Yazd, Iran, at sunset and eventually rescued by three Parsis on a pilgrimage from Mumbai.

Two years ago, when she trekked to the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, a younger man was disbelieving: “Mataji, why have you troubled yourself so much? There’s not even a temple at Annapurna."

Until that point, Mahalingam had never thought of herself as a Mataji. Her travel style is certainly far from matronly. She zips off to remote places often without bookings, living on a shoestring budget at hostels full of backpacking students, a “windowless dungeon" in Fez, or on a sofa in a house crammed with 11 in a bedroom in Rome. “You don’t want to travel like me," she says laughing loudly, a wild gleam in her eyes.

Being an older woman traveller from a non-white nation is hugely advantageous, Mahalingam says. “Nobody notices you and nobody—not even touts—takes you seriously," she says.

In her book, there’s a reference to munching a snack from Saravana Bhavan that doesn’t fit Mahalingam’s travel-light personality and I ask her about it. “I never carry food on any trip," she says, explaining that one time was an exception. Occasionally, she will bring back home some food (her only shopping), such as saffron from Spain, baklava from Turkey, lemons from Morocco or gaz from Iran.

Her main criteria when she picks a destination is simple. “It has to be somewhere unexplored, rough. A place everyone doesn’t go," she tells me over a cup of chai. “I like trips where I don’t see another human being." I ask her if such places still exist and she says, yes, for example, the tiny villages and towns in the Russian steppes where you can enjoy blazing sunsets and 360-degree vistas without encountering a soul. Her published writing and photographs are available on

“…over time, my passion for travel has only gotten worse. It continues to singe and sear and is now imbued with a sense of urgency," Mahalingam writes in her book. “Not only is there so much to see and do when I am not getting any younger, the hydra-headed monster called tourism is literally carpet-bombing every square inch of our cowering planet—threatening to reduce me to being a tourist rather than a traveller." On her bucket list are places such as Papua New Guinea, the Congo, Botswana and the Kamchatka Peninsula (I had to look up that one). “I am drawn to the jungles and then to the mountains."

One time, in 2003, she opted to attend an energy conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, because someone had mentioned the beauty of Lake Issyk-Kul in nearby Kyrgyzstan. She landed in Bishkek after sunset in October with no hotel booking and local language skills but, hey, that’s all in a day’s journey for Mahalingam.

She has travelled to Russia four times, China and France 10 times each, but Iran, where she has been a dozen times since 2003 (to Shiraz, Qom, Persepolis, Isfahan, Tabriz and Yazd, among other places), is a favourite destination. “Often you don’t see another traveller," she says. “It’s perfectly safe for women to travel alone."

Sometimes, her accounts of her misadventures—from getting detained at Quito airport to landing up in the Czech Republic without a visa—can make your stomach churn. I struck off Oktoberfest from my list of to-do trips after reading her unvarnished account of crowds, chaos, long waits for a beer and “the continuous wail of ambulance sirens" through the night, ferrying overenthusiastic revellers to hospital. Reading Mahalingam’s accounts of faraway places serves as a reminder that many of the travelogues we read in magazines and newspapers are sponsored and airbrushed beyond recognition.

But travel mishaps rarely stress this author, who says “if tomorrow is going to be like today, I want to die today". The one time she did feel stress was when she hopped on a biplane and went manta ray spotting on Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Her group included a bunch of professional photographers from Japan who wanted to dive deeper than she could, so the instructor left her and told her she should surface in 50 minutes before her oxygen ran out. When she came up, there was no one in sight and she spent many minutes hanging on to a buoy and thinking, this is it Sudha. “Just as I was about to give up, I saw the boat. They hauled me in and I promptly threw up," she recounts.

Mahalingam usually clocks five-six trips a year. These days, she prefers company when she travels. Maybe I will slow down, she tells me, but I am not convinced, especially since she has just finished telling me about the trips coming up: Madagascar in September, Patagonia in December. The only thing that isn’t going anywhere is her itch to travel.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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