Following a close call with cancer, Sandra Reekie discovered the joys and freedom of solo travel. Here's the story of how she travelled alone across India...
"You will never see a sky as beautiful as the sun rising over the Himalayas from Darjeeling,” my father said with an unaccustomed hint of nostalgia in his voice. I was five years old and we were sitting atop a hill watching the sun go down over the Essex town where we lived.
From that exact moment, I longed to see that sunrise for myself and visit Agra, where my grandfather was stationed with the army when dad was born. But it took me a while.
50 years later, my daughter and I travelled independently to India, and we did indeed see that sunrise and Agra. A nine-week trip with my daughter made me realise that it was possible to find your own hotels, discover what’s down that small and interesting-looking road the tour guide walks you past and, most importantly of all, learn just how incredibly friendly and kind people are to a stranger. The travel bug had bitten hard.
The following year I had a close call with cancer and, when I didn’t die within the predicted year, I resolved to go back to India. No one would or could come with me so, pig-headedly, I said I’d go on my own.
It was an easy thing to say, but could I really go alone? After I’d said goodbye to my husband at Heathrow, I went into the ladies and sobbed. What was I doing?
I had never travelled on my own. When we went abroad on holiday, I had never even used the foreign currency. I was petrified. So I had cheated a little and booked the first 10 days with a small group adventure travel company to help me get over my initial nerves. We spent those first 10 days travelling to Kochi, Mysore and Ootacamund, then I said "Goodbye" and headed alone for the railway station in Bangalore to catch the overnight train to Hampi.
This fascinating historical site, set in a strange and beautiful, boulder-strewn landscape, was the perfect place for me to explore for the first time completely on my own. Each day, my confidence grew and with it my sense of awareness and safety. What was I doing? Was it respectful? A deserted restaurant was probably not as safe as a full one.
I learned to trust my gut feeling when it came to judging people. I found that all these long-buried skills, which we all possess, were slowly getting stronger. Before I left there, I’d even found myself in a Bollywood movie.
I needed to travel north, but I wanted to see Panaji, the capital of Goa, and for the first time caught an overnight bus. Imagine a double decker painted bright yellow, with homemade reclining seats. I was allocated a window seat that reclined so far back my feet were above my head.
As we rattled our way along the bumpy Indian roads in the pitch black, any ‘comfort’ stops were made at the side of the road and each time at least one person came back with cuts and grazes, having fallen down a ditch. But we made it to Goa.
Those who had the top deck fared best, as most were enjoying some ‘happy baccy’.
From Goa, I found my way by bus, train, taxi and rickshaw to the ancient caves at Ellora and also to those at Ajanta. At the Ajanta Caves I was adopted by a taxi driver who decided that, as I was older than his mother, I needed looking after.
I suspiciously thought he just wanted to overcharge me for each ride, but how wrong I was. It was another lesson learned: to trust my own judgement and not go by the alarmist stories you hear. I was so proud of myself.
I had not only achieved my first trip alone, but had managed all my travel arrangements, even come to grips with the bureaucratic purchasing of train tickets and, finally, with just two days before my return flight, made it to Mumbai, arriving in the early hours at that wonderful carved stone-and-marble railway station six weeks after setting out. I felt great.
I subsequently returned to India on several occasions, sometimes alone, sometimes not. I also travelled along the Silk Road. Starting in Istanbul, I crossed Turkey, Syria, Iran and Turkmenistan with its bizarre capital, Ashgabat, then travelled on to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, where I visited the largest Silk Road market in the world at Kashgar, before crossing into Pakistan at the highest paved border crossing in the world.
I made many friends along the way. Sometimes I joined up with people who were going my way for a few days or a week or two, such as the young man with whom I shared the hire of a car to cross the Pamir Mountains.
I have wonderful memories of many people: the Sikh man who, without my knowing, kept an eye on me during a three-hour wait at an Indian railway station and who, when I nearly boarded the wrong train, gently took my arm and shook his head; the lady on a bus journey in Iran who planted a large bag of sweets on my lap; and the student in Syria who waited 20 minutes with me to ensure I caught the right bus and that the driver knew where to let me off. I have a well of such memories.
In northern Pakistan, I met a young jeep driver. The following year, I returned to live with his extended family for a month, teaching at the local school, before taking two months to travel through every valley between Afghanistan and Kashmir. We all know old sayings like, ‘Life isn’t a rehearsal,’ and looking back I now realise that whenever I made myself do something that scared me, it always turned out to be the best experience ever.
Travelling alone is one of them. I can’t deny it can be lonely, but travelling with the wrong person is far, far worse. After years of being a daughter, wife, mother and granny, I am now me. If people aren’t going my way, I know I can happily go on my own.
At 73, I must confess that it’s time to retire my beloved rucksack and get something on wheels, but so long as I have a good guidebook and a water heater to make a cup of coffee, there’s nothing that can stop me.
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