From Mussoorie to Varkala, this woman lived in 9 different places in one single year during the pandemic
Paragliding, surfing, trekking all while working a full-time job, this 37-year-old has mastered the art of solo travel in India
The question ‘how did you spend your time in the pandemic?’ is soon going to be on billboards, in job interviews and on our Bumble profiles. It’s the new conversational ice-breaker. You can tell a lot about a person by how they chose to spend their lockdown. Some found new hobbies like drawing, reel-making or collecting house plants. While others, like myself, befriended OTT platforms and spent all day working and all night escaping into true-crime documentaries. But there is a third category which consists of people like 37-year-old Shraddha Goenka who took one look at life in lockdown and did what the rest of us have only dreamed about — mastered solo travel in India. Following all COVID protocols, of course.
In December 2020, Goenka, exhausted after spending all year alone in her Mumbai home, decided to take a trip by herself. This was the first of many solo workcations for her. From the snowy, mountainous terrains of Himachal Pradesh to the underrated beaches of the South. The most adventure I’ve had in the last year is venturing on the six-storey trek from my house to my terrace.
For some inspiration that we can live through vicariously, we spoke to Goenka. She used solo travel in India to keep her mental health intact, carpeing the diem by challenging herself to leave her comfort zone and embark on adventures she never thought possible.
‘Solo travel in India was most liberating decision I’ve ever made’
Living all by yourself in a city like Mumbai during a global pandemic is not easy. I was stuck in the house, craving some form of human interaction. Virtual meetings don’t count. After doing that all of 2020, I decided I’d had enough of that. It was affecting my mental health. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take another year of staring at the same four walls and attending Zoom meetings. I thought to myself, ‘why am I binding myself here? This time will never come back.’ So, when things started opening up, between the first and second wave, I seized the opportunity. At the age of 37, I took off all by myself to Uttarakhand. This was in December 2020 and I haven’t looked back since.
I had travelled extensively before, mostly for work. So, this trip to New Tehri, Landour, Missouri and Rishikesh was a whole new experience for me. The idea was that I was going to challenge myself to do something I had never done. I wanted to try things I was afraid of. From cliff jumping and river rafting in Rishikesh (in the cold December water) to paragliding in Bir Billing. In January 2021, I visited Varkala and tried surfing, which I never thought would be my cup of tea. Although considering that it turned into a near-death experience, I think I was right.
While I was trying to balance myself, my surfboard came swirling at me and I went underwater with the surfboard leash around my neck. My soul nearly jumped out of my body. But I didn’t let this deter me. I was on a mission to challenge myself.
In April 2021, I travelled to Meghalaya with a bunch of people I met in Varkala. February, I went to Pondicherry. In March, I went to Bir Billing. At first, I decided to stay only for 5 days. I hadn’t decided where in Himachal I wanted to go but I knew I wanted to go to a place I had never been before. So after a lot of research, I came across paragliding in Bir Billing and since I hadn’t ever done that, I thought it was the perfect opportunity. I was staying true to my oath of doing things that I hadn’t ever tried before.
It was so freeing. It was a total Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara moment because I’ve always been terrified of heights. This is how I conquered that fear. Bir Billing is the place I would want to come to over and over again. The mountains, the serenity. It’s where I saw my first shooting star. Watching that streak of light gliding through the sky was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had.
Since I didn’t have a return ticket, I decided to stay in Himachal a little longer with a few fellow travellers I had befriended. That is the beauty of solo travelling. I was introduced to numerous cultures, backgrounds and languages. I discovered a whole new world of music that I didn’t know existed. In my head, I am still a teenager, but I know my age. So, when you meet people who are 10 years younger than you, it broadens your worldview.
In June 2021, I returned to Himachal, this time to Jibhi and Sojha. I booked an overnight cab from Chandigarh. I was so scared because it was just me and an unknown driver on a 9-hour journey through the mountains at night. But once I reached my destination and started exploring the place, I knew the risk was worth all the nail biting.
I was, of course, constantly worried about COVID-19. I didn’t want to get infected nor did I want to be a carrier and infect others. I always took precautions and have spent a whole lot of money on RTPCR tests before and after my trips. I always carried a sanitiser and ensured I would wash my hands and that I didn’t touch my face without washing my hands. I always wore a mask. A lot of people would ask why I travelled so extensively during a global pandemic? I should’ve just sat at home like the rest of the world. But I spent the entire 2020 all alone at home. I didn’t want to do that anymore.
I didn’t start solo travel by choice. It was sort of a force because I was tired of asking people if they wanted to go on a trip. After trying to match dates, fit everyone’s preferences in an itinerary and coordinate, I gave up on them. I stopped waiting for people and took action. Started planning my trips the way I want to. I travelled the way I wanted. Slept when I wanted, ate what I wanted, went where I wanted to go. If I wanted to put on shoes and set out on a trek, there was no one to tell me otherwise. Choosing to try solo travel in India was the most liberating decision I’ve ever made.
It wasn’t always rainbows and valleys though. Initially, before I started travelling solo, I would ask myself ‘how am I going to manage all by myself?’ I was sure the solitude would get to me. It’s not easy to spend so much time alone. Especially if you are in the mountains, because there is not a soul around. I remember on my very first trip to New Tehri, I was staying at this lodge for five days. It was only me and this other family who left after the first two days. I was so scared being all by myself at a lodge in the mountains. It was just sanata with the occasional sound of winds howling.
But that’s how you grow, isn’t it? I looked at this experience of solo travel in India as a lesson. I realised that this solitude was going to help me introspect. If I wanted to get to know myself, I was going to have to learn how to be by myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I was much stronger than I had thought I ever could be. And the only way to do that was to get out of my shell, my warm and cosy comfort zone.
After a few solo trips, I realised the first step to coming out of my comfort zone was to stop staying in lodges and hotels. Yes, I was working all through all the trips and that required me to have a good internet connection at all times, but I chose to give up the convenience of good WiFi and soft beds for hostels and dormitories. This simple step was a game-changer. I met new people and embarked on adventures I never knew possible. Have you ever seen a sky that is just white-washed with stars? I did, on an impromptu weekend trip to Rajgunda Valley with two fellow travellers I met during my stay.
The dominant force to travelling solo was to preserve my mental health. I don’t mean to sound all Eat, Pray, Love, but it was more to find myself. When you’re travelling and you meet people, you become more receptive and patient. It makes you challenge your thoughts in a way. I didn’t want to just be at home because I felt that was making me mentally weaker. It made a lot of sense to live a nomadic life and work remotely.
This experience of solo travel in India helped me be more comfortable in my skin. It’s always good to have company, but it’s not a need anymore. I can sit by myself for hours and watch a sunset without any feelings of anxiety or restlessness. I don’t even mind walking for hours by myself.
On the flip side, as fulfilling as I have found this banjara lifestyle, it comes with its own set of problems. I am practically living out of my suitcase and I am under this self-inflicted pressure to plan my next trip every 15 days. Another downside is that after you extensively travel solo, you don’t have the tolerance for hangups. My next trip is supposed to be to Kashmir in March. I was supposed to go with my cousins but their dates kept clashing. I was so excited that I could finally plan by myself. I can’t wait around on anyone anymore and I don’t have to anymore.
I was 37 when I first travelled by myself. Even though I had travelled a lot for work, I had never done something like this. A lot of friends tell me that they want to live the life I am living. And sometimes I look back and wonder which is better — having a family to come home to or travelling without a worry in the world? But it’s not one or the other. It’s a balance of both worlds. Of course, I miss my family back home but I also understand that connecting with myself is equally important.
Solo travel in India became therapeutic for me. The food my soul needed to sustain my sanity through the pandemic. I almost decided to quit everything and open a cafe in Himachal and become a travel blogger.
*As told to Mitali Shah