This is a new series where travellers who’ve taken the unpaved road talk about their experiences, trysts and their life. Welcome to merrytoTALK. Hope to bring together a bunch of people who inspire me with their wandering lives 🙂
The first person to meet is SUPRIYA SEHGAL! I was first introduced to her as a friend’s friend in Bangalore, and then found myself hoping she would give me a project at Getoffurass. She did… and post that, she has been my go-to-person on all doubts related to my attempts to crack a job in the travel industry…
Supriya is a freelance travel writer and has been associated with a decade old India based adventure travel company, Getoffurass, for which she co-leads a travel photography venture – Photography Onthemove.
She took the plunge and gave ‘full time travel’ the rightful place over the cubicle, which she survived for 5 years. Initially she was the ‘google-less’, no google, no maps, no books, nothing. Only recently was this instinct tamed as she tweaked her ‘vagabondish’ travel instincts to pen guidebooks for Lonely Planet. The first one, Short Escapes from Bengaluru, launched in early 2013, Kerala is out in August and four more should hit the stands by the end of the year! (Whoa, I say!)
Though travel is a clear favourite, her interest in other genres has resulted in building narratives for corporate films & radio spots, content development for websites, blogs & brochures. She features regularly in Nat Geo Traveller magazine apart from other publications like Indian Express, Hindu, Mint, Mahindra and LP UK.
For more about her work visit supriyasehgal.com.
Thanks Supriya for agreeing to stop by at merry to go around.
MTGA: Lets start with a question inspired by Pico Iyer’s famous travel article ‘why we travel?’ Why do you travel?
SS: First, I love Pico Iyer so this question makes me very happy. I have never really stepped back and introspected on ‘why I travel’. I suppose it started with the usual thing. Struck by the wonder of new cultures, history, different perspectives and loving my own space. Even when I was working with Nike, I didn’t want to be confined to the idea of a routine week and then an even more predictable weekend – I needed to do something different and travelling fed that need very well. I’m not a passive person – so I needed (and still do) new encounters constantly. So I guess ‘new encounters’ sums up why I travel…
MTGA: Tell me about your first travel experience… and let me be clearer, we all travel with our parents, so saying I first travelled when I was 5 months is not what I mean… when did you decide and take off?
SS: It was one of those Friday nights in 2004 when I went to the bus-stop and thought Hampi it is! I didn’t even know the hype around it, about its hippie status, or the ruins…. I landed at Hospet, shared an auto with a local family to Hampi and realised that Rs 50/- is all I wanted to spend for a clean room in a local house. I hate walking – but this trip was ALL about walking…. I trekked up to the Mathanga Paravath at 4 in the morning with a very young local girl called Lakshmi (she insisted on coming along), met an Italian Baba who spoke immaculate Hindi, turned down overtures of ‘best hash in Hampi’, coaracled myself silly, got woken up by cops in the middle of the night to prove I wasn’t a drug peddler, got to click pictures of the Anjaneya deity on the hill (which no one else was allowed) and spent hours writing sitting by the river.
MTGA: Wow, that’s some trip. We’ve all had our disastrous trips, either because it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to or was just a flop show… What’s your worst travel experience?
SS: Frankly, every trip has had its ups and downs.. I really can’t remember a single trip, which has not made an eventual impression and left me happy. Relatively speaking I abhorred a recent Visakhapatnam trip for the first 2 days, but that too turned out brilliant after I found my crafts’ hook in the places around.
MTGA: True, there is always something that comes along and makes it worth your while… sometime ago, I read an fb status of yours saying you could write a book on ‘where not to go’… tell us more about that. Are you writing it? What were your ‘where not to go’ experiences?
SS: I have been putting down a list and thinking about some interesting names for the project. If not a book, it will surely be a website…. The only thing is that, as beneficial as it might be for travellers, it’s a bit unfair to completely trash a destination and label it as a ‘not to go’. I need to tone down the sentiment, still keeping it honest and a little irreverent. It’s a challenge because when you really sit down to write an authentic suggestion/ warn readers of something, it’s a lot of responsibility! There is no place truly devoid of character…. so the idea needs a lot of fine-tuning.
It would include accommodations (maybe specific rooms of places), over hyped sight seeing places and restaurants. Example, a specific shack in Colva, Goa with extremely racist owners and one of the local harbours on the Trivandrum- Kovalam coast, which is unsafe for solo women travellers; these would make it to the list.
MTGA: Do you plan travel? I feel google-less travel is aspirational because most times the costs, availability doesn’t favour zero-planning… if I want that cheap ticket I got to book in advance, and then that planned travel! But there is a joy in ‘impulsive travel’? So how do you discover & uncover at ‘backpacker-favourable’ costs?
SS: You are absolutely right! If I am writing for a commissioned project, there is no chance that I would go ‘un-googled’ – I need to do all the secondary research. But in the past, I HAVE travelled without knowing anything about the place prior to my trip and it was a lot of fun. I did the whole Kerala coast from Mahe to Kasargod absolutely google-less, also parts of Karnataka. We get so biased with an overload of information that not having a pre-conceived notion about a place makes it very interesting. I seriously urge people to try it atleast once.
I don’t always stick to a backpacker budget. That also doesn’t mean that my travels are even close to being luxurious! I usually travel by trains and buses, which cut the cost to a large extent. Within a destination, I rely on auto drivers to take me to budget hotels, I just go by the look and feel of a hotel, check the rooms and book. Places like Hampi, parts of Kerala, Varanasi are full of low budget stay options, so it’s not that big a challenge.
MTGA: I wonder if you have a place you can visit again and again. With so many places to see at times I wonder if I will ever go back to any place I have been to, though I want to. So if you had all the time in this life, where would you go again and again?
SS: I could live in Varanasi – I like it THAT much.
MTGA: Nice… I agree, Varanasi has ‘ghatloads’ of charm and history. I remember a 6 am ride on the Ganges in August on a non-motored thus quiet rowing boat. The Ganges was pregnant with rainwater (as you would say in Tamil), there was a calming silence and the lightest drizzle from above, that’s as close to my version of heaven. It is one of my favourite cities too.
Now tell me, what is your favouritest trip, where, why, when and how… tell us all!
It will have to be Varanasi again. I went their first to recce the place for a photography workshop and got lost in many narrow streets, walked the entire stretch of the ghats, rowed the boat in the Ganga (much to the amusement of locals), chatted with the Dom Raja, met a guy who clicks pictures of corpses, met a former Kushti champ, sneaked into the sacrosanct Ram Lila practice session in Ram Nagar and met a whole lot of unique locals there. This was back in 2009. In 2010, we did the workshop and I rediscovered it all over again while helping a friend shoot a film there. Both trips put together, has made Benares my absolute favourite.
Then there’s another small bit of a Kerala trip, which I loved. I got invited to see a temple Theyyam in a remote village near Bekal. That day was absolutely fabulous. The artistes called me to their camp and were happy to share how they dressed and did the make-up. I don’t know Malayalam, but we all still managed, which was the best part of the entire conversation! I was like a mini-VIP in the village – complete with a special chair, regular dose of Coconut water and everyone trying to figure what I was doing there alone. It was heart-warming.
MTGA: Travel surprises me, and that’s what I like. At times, I go in expecting something and it turns out that that’s not how it happens at all. Has that happened to you? When have you been most surprised while travelling?
It will have to be Mon district, at the eastern most part of Nagaland. I thought it would be much like the rest of Nagaland – extremely hospitable, but it was quite different. Almost like the local community wasn’t quite happy to have travellers over – which I completely understand. Even topography wise, it was more rugged than I expected. Nothing was an absolute shock, but far from what I had imagined.
MTGA: Oh that’s interesting, we are so used to people welcoming travellers, don’t think there can be a set that doesn’t want you there… that is some experience!
There is this dying need to discover away from home, away from country, away from city, outside somewhere… do you think we sometimes tend to forget to wade through our own backyards? How well do you know Bangalore or is that something that’s on the list?
SS: I was quite conscious of this ever since I started travelling, so I started with Bangalore when I came here in 2004. Except for the food joints (I’m not a foodie at all), I visited all the sight seeing and off-Bangalore places soon after getting here. Also, it was new to me then so the same filters applied. Luckily I got to do the Bangalore piece for a book on South India and loved the process of re-discovering.
MTGA: For most of us, travel is a break in our routine… for you travel is routine! So if you’re not travelling where would we find you? What do you do on your time-off?
SS: You would find me at home sleeping or desperately trying to catch up with my social life! But this is almost never!
MTGA: And before we go, what is this we hear about Lonely Planet and Supriya Sehgal… tell us more about your travel-stardom!
SS: It’s anything but ‘Stardom’! 🙂 I was on the road for more than 250 days last year – grimy, living out of a backpack, sleeping in a different hotel everyday. Trust me, that excitement of reading your name against a book/article is a short-lived thrill, as you are probably chasing a deadline or packing to leave that very night to the next place (as I am right now) 🙂
P.S. All photographs courtesy Facebook. If you took one of these and haven’t been credited, do let me know. I did search high and low for the photographer! 🙂
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