04 Mar 2016 19:11 IST

The joy of travelling solo

The sunset at Kihim beach, Alibaug

Travelling alone teaches you to enjoy your own company, more than anything else

Travelling is one of those things that changes you from within forever. I’m not talking about drastic changes, like you come back so Zen that nothing affects you anymore (travel withdrawal symptoms can give you some pretty terrible mood swings, and I speak from experience). I’m referring to subtle inner transformations — your outlook towards life shifts slightly; you don’t take things very seriously any more because you realise the world is too big a place for any problem to be insurmountable; you’re a little more empathetic towards people because somehow, travelling imparts the wisdom that everyone is going through something, that everyone has a story. You’re just generally happier, calmer, wiser.

Apart from the inner changes you feel, there are those places you visit that make travelling worthwhile — the monuments whose walls breathe their story to you, the hills whose sheer scale and drop can make you stop dead in your tracks. Oh, the joy, the happiness, the light-headedness you feel! Travelling is the best solution to everything. As a slightly tweaked version of Charles Bukowski’s quote on Facebook said: If you’re happy, travel to celebrate. If you’re sad, travel to forget. If nothing’s happening, travel to make something happen!

And one thing I learnt from my recent trip is that travelling solo is, sometimes, the best way to go.

The dream

I’ve always wanted to travel alone, but till something actually pushes you to act on that impulse, you keep making excuses for yourself. Add to that the paranoia of parents, your dream of travelling alone may very well remain just that — a dream.

Still, I had had enough — of myself, mostly — and decided that if I didn’t take a break at a point when there was a good possibility of me having a meltdown, I would never do it. So it was that one afternoon, I just went ahead and booked my tickets to and from Maharashtra.

Take-off day arrived. As the plane taxied out, I promised myself I would have the best time of my life. As we took off, I smiled to myself as the realisation set in — it was happening.

One of my best friends was getting married in Mumbai, so I thought why not go around Maharashtra? Since I had four days to myself, I decided to break it down into two two-day trips — two days in Matheran and two in Alibaug.

Matheran

Reaching the smallest hill station of India isn’t hard — one takes a local train from Dadar to Neral, and from Neral, either the toy train up to Matheran (which takes about two hours), or a cab, which charges around ₹70, and drops you off at the town’s entrance in half an hour. The hill station doesn’t allow vehicles inside; all the traversing within has to be done either on foot or on horse-back.

Thankfully for me, I had booked a room at the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) resort, which is right at the entrance to Matheran. My room was huge and, though spartan, comfortable in every aspect.

After settling in, I realised I had no mobile signal — nada, zilch. My frantic “search for networks” antics led nowhere — the signal bar stayed stubbornly empty. They had no wifi either; so basically, I was cut off from everybody I knew. I had a mini-panic attack, imagining the worst things happening to me, because akeli ladki ek khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai and all.

But I took a deep breath, reminding myself of the promise I made, and went to have lunch. After a simple meal of dal-chawal (I’m a sucker for this comfort dish), I put on my shades and shoes and started the exploration, beginning with a trek to Echo Point. Most places are less than 5-6 km from each other, so on an average, it would take about one hour to reach a point.

As I walked, tall horses passed by, their hooves kicking up red mud that was so ubiquitous here. These handsome colts had amusing names — Mowgli, Bahubali, Good Boy, and Beckham!

I heard the place I was nearing before I saw it. How, you ask? Well Indian tourists have this amazing quality of being loud, and the fact that it is called Echo Point means, for them, the freedom — a go-ahead of sorts — to scream at the top of their lungs.

As I approached the point, my footsteps slowed of their own accord… intimidating hills of varying heights, and trees looking like moss stuck to them, loomed ahead and stretched as far as eyes could see. A light, lazy mist covered the hills. I walked and reached the railing, observing the sheer drop below, fully aware of how inconsequential I was in front of these grand formations.

I just stood there, taking it all in — the sun kissing my face, the wind caressing my cheeks and at that moment, I felt truly alive. After covering two other points, I decided to call it a day, and so, with red dust on my shoes and pants, marched back to my room.

The second scare

The next day, at the suggestion of those at the reception, I decided to go to Panorama Point, which is at quite a distance from the hotel. I began walking past people, horses and parked cars but, after a certain point, it was just me, being one with Nature. The only sounds I heard was the gravel and mud crunching below my feet, the slight whoosh of the trees as they swayed in the breeze and my own breath. On and on I went, a slight smile on my face, feeling not unlike Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

After about 20 minutes, the smile left my face. I had met nary a soul here. The trail seemed to go on endlessly. At one point, there was elevated forest to my right, and a sheer fall to my left. Right at that moment, a snippet I had read online while researching this place, popped in my head. “Is Matheran safe for camping, because I heard there are leopards in the area.” Though the answer was in the negative, I was afraid. If a leopard does jump out at me, and I tumble into the abyss, no one would know where I was, I thought! But then, I consoled myself, remembering the pepper spray I had in my bag. And if it was dangerous, the hotel wouldn’t have suggested this place, would they, I reasoned, marching ahead with renewed determination.

After around 25 minutes, I reached a clearing, and stood rooted to my spot, letting out a small, gleeful ‘oh my god’!

The view from there was breath-taking! Hills on all sides, blanketed in mist, clouds teasing the hilltops and cool wind blowing across the valley with the sun keeping the chill at bay. Having spent around 20 minutes there (I admit, I indulged in selfies here), I started back, re-energised and fully prepared for the trek back.

I then tried to cover most “must-visit” points — One Tree Hill Point, Alexander Point, Khandala Point, et al, but decided I had had enough of tourists and their noise, and settled down beneath a tree at Alexander Point, which is, thankfully, not very sought after and therefore, relatively quiet. Reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami would have been less magical had I read it in the city. There was a chai bhaiya who helped keep the monkeys away. I must admit, these seemingly innocent primates struck more fear in my heart than the prospect of strange men!

Finally, it was time to go to Alibaug.

Alibaug

Alibaug can be reached in an hour via a ferry from the Gateway of India, and I was excited because I had never travelled on one before! Surprisingly, most people preferred to sit in the AC cabin below, rather than the open first floor deck.

As the boat lazily hummed ahead, swaying to the waves, I heard what I like to call “travel songs”, one especially, called Akale .

The cottage I had booked in the town, around 12 km from Alibaug, was not-so-well-known but I had liked the sound of it. And it did not disappoint. I fell in love with my room — small, quaint, quiet, yellow-painted, with French windows that open out on to a balcony, overlooking a usually deserted street. So comfortable it was that all my plans for the day went out the window. I decided that, instead of running around, I would relax, read, sleep.

Here, I met a couple who were avid travellers themselves and were impressed that I was travelling alone (I did an elaborate mental jig). That evening, I went to Kihim Beach. Being low tide, the water was far away. Families and friends frolicked on the beach. Having soaked in the tranquil beauty, I returned to my room.

The next day, I went in a share auto to Alibaug beach. I found a bench a little away from the clamour of day-trippers, and began to read. Into the sea, I could see the Undheri Fort, and I wondered how I could get there. My eyes traced the horizon and found a boat. I followed it all the way to where people were getting aboard and off I went, to clamber aboard. While the fort in itself isn’t a lot to take in, the views of the sea from the ramparts are worth going for.

On my return, I decided to go to Nagaon beach, and bargained with an auto person to take me there, wait for an hour, and drop me back, all for a sum of ₹400. I hopped on the three-wheeler, and after half an hour of twisting and turning down narrow roads, we reached the seaside. Here, Ram, the auto bhaiya, gave me his number and said, “Missed call de dijiye. Magar hum yahi honge.”

The sceptic in me refused to give him a missed call and, instead, I just ambled along the beach, which was wider than Alibaug, listening to music. After lunch as I sat back in the auto, Ram said to me, “ Aapne humko missed call nahi diya, aur agar aapko kuch ho jaata to hum zimmedaar hote. Isiliye ye poora time humne aapke upar nazar rakha. Agar aap ek kilometre ki doori par hai, to hum aadhe kilometre pe aapke peeche the. Waise to yaha pe kuch hota nahi hai, par bol nahi sakte na, madam. Aur aap akeli bhi hai. Ye yug hi aisa hai — kuch bhi ho sakta hai.” (Since you didn’t give me a missed call, I had to keep an eye on you, and had to follow you at a distance, to make sure you were safe!)

I realised that his following me may have seemed creepy but it didn’t feel so. In fact, I was really touched that he went to all that trouble to make sure I was safe! I went back to my room, and after resting up a bit, ambled down again to Kihim beach for the sunset, and that was when I realised how serene and unreal sunsets are. An abandoned boat lay on the sand, the setting sun painting its hull a burnished copper.

The golden goodbye

It is at this time that everything around gets a golden outline to it, each moment that the sun goes down, seems suspended in time, and a quiet peace seems to descend from the skies above.

I climbed atop a coral formation, watching the sun go down and praying the day wouldn’t end; that the beauty be captured forever, that the peace I felt never leaves me. But the golden ball of fire went down into the Arabian sea, signalling the end of the day, and of my solo adventure too.

If there’s one thing this trip taught me, it is being alive in the moment, cliched as it may sound; to relish, and enjoy moments that pass you by, lest you wake up tomorrow and think, “Where did all that time go?”

Recommended for you