Redefining solo travel: Sudha Mahalingam, 70, has visited 66 countries in 25 years
Mahalingam wears several hats, but travelling is what she loves doing most
Writer, professor, energy economist, consultant, researcher, lecturer, journalist, photographer and above all a quintessential traveller: that is Sudha Mahalingam, the versatile 70-year-old, who loves going around the globe, discovering places and the people there and pursuing her passions.
A Bangalore resident, Mahalingam is an energy economist who has been in several important positions including advisor to the Indian Prime Minister on energy security issues (as member of the National Security Advisory Board) and a full-time regulator of the country’s petroleum sector. She is a visiting fellow at many leading international universities and consultant to international energy organisations.
Mahalingam has published over 400 travelogues and more than a thousand photographs in national and international publications and of places that rarely feature on popular tourist circuits. She has also published a book of her adventures, ‘The travel gods must be crazy’; the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, published her coffee table book - Mustang: Mystique of a Mountain Kingdom – with her text and pictures taken by her. The centre also hosted an exhibition of her photographs of Nepal’s Tiji festival in November 2019 and some were exhibited by Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur.
Excerpts from an interview with Mahalingam:
Have you travelled to Dubai, the UAE and other parts of the Gulf? What was your experience in the region?
Unfortunately, my footprint in the Middle East is light. I have travelled to Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and many years ago, to Dubai. But the Gulf has been on my itinerary several times. I travelled to Iran for many conferences and also drove through on my last leg of Nikitin Expedition (which retraces the steps of 15th century Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin to India). I had a smooth and pleasant experience travelling alone in the region. I had to cover up in Iran, but that was only a minor inconvenience. In fact, I made many friends in Iran and am still in touch with them. I adore the Islamic architecture, its symmetry and grace. Esfahan and Shiraz are my favourite cities.
Indians and many other Asians love to travel in groups. You have been one of the few women who does not mind travelling alone in distant lands. Was it difficult in the beginning and what were the challenges?
Actually, I prefer to travel alone because it allows you to focus fully on the experience, absorb places and people without being distracted by constant chatter of your travel companion. I can’t remember facing any difficulty traveling solo anywhere in the world for that matter. One has to be mindful while travelling, keep your passport on your person, generally be cautious. But that said, I believe people on the whole are good everywhere.
Did you grow up in Bangalore, which must have been a charming city in those days? What are your views on the transformation that has happened in the city?
I grew up in Chennai. I left the city in 1974 and since then lived in 14 cities and towns all over India and also three years in London and four in Sydney. I do go back to Chennai. Like all Indian cities, living conditions have deteriorated. Chennai is crowded, congested, and harried, but the core remains as charming as ever – like the temple and tank in Mylapore and the beaches of Adyar. I have worked in Bangalore from 1974 for two years and it was so pristine and beautiful. In my view Bangalore is at heart, a small town upon which metro status has been thrust. It is struggling to come to terms with this mega identity, unable to cope with the enormity of the burden that megacities bear. Yet, North Bangalore where I live, still has huge green spaces – lakes, forests, parks, farms, orchards and even ranches. How long these will last against the relentless onslaught of an ever-expanding urban population is anybody’s guess.
While travelling alone across India (not the metros, but the semi-urban and rural areas) and many parts of the developing world, do you find people wondering as to why a woman is travelling alone?
That used to happen 50 years ago when I was young (I used to travel alone even then), but now nobody raises an eyebrow when women travel alone. In any case, I am in the older women category and am left well alone, thankfully. Indians think women travelling alone are doing so for religious purposes. As long as you dress modestly enough not to attract attention to yourself, they leave you alone, I guess.
Do you enjoy your interactions with people around the globe? Can you narrate a remarkable incident that will remain etched in your mind for ever?
Yes, that’s the reason I travel alone. I love to catch up with strangers, fellow travellers and my hosts on their worldview of life and politics. Whenever I am abroad, I make it a point to visit a bar or pub and strike up conversations over a beer. I prefer staying in hostels rather than hotels although I can afford the latter. In hostels you meet real travellers and can exchange interesting notes, swap travel tales and have fun.
Once I was backpacking through Yazd in Iran and met this young Lebanese woman, a banker from Chicago who had chucked her lucrative job to travel around the world. We became good friends and travelled through parts of Iran together. She had started her backpacking in Japan and worked her way west, stopping for months in each country on the way. When I met her in Yazd, she had been on the road for more than three years. She told me, travelling in India was the most difficult because Indian men don’t take kindly to women travelling solo. Here I was, a single Indian woman traipsing all over, and I never considered for a moment that my own country would prove to be daunting for foreign women travellers. It made me realise that travel experiences are very personalised.
Were your parents or other close relatives also bitten by the travel bug?
The reason why I choose to travel solo is none of my family members is fond of travel. I drag my husband along to many places and he enjoys these trips, but there’s always a reluctance to go on the next trip. My younger son whom I dragged along all over Europe, Israel, Jordan and into the jungles of Borneo likes only extreme adventure. He loved the Borneo jungle trek. He is easily bored by other attractions.
As for my parents, when I was growing up, travel was a luxury and unaffordable. I would gaze at colour photos in National Geographic, Span and Life magazines and long to go to those places. I used to wistfully watch hippie caravans in Chennai and wanted to run away with them to the wonderland beyond! In the end, I ended up going to many places I had dreamt of. I do believe you’re limited only by your dreams. I chose to dream extravagantly despite my circumstances (not rich, married, mother of two kids, full-time job, traditional family and vegetarian).
Are you a light traveller? Do you carry cameras and take a lot of photographs?
Yes, I am a very light traveller. I try to carry only as much luggage as I can lift on my own. I recycle clothes, never take food with me and get by minimally. But I do take a good camera, additional lenses, batteries, chargers etc. I have several thousand photographs of all the places I have visited. You can see a lot of them on my website (www.footlooseindian.com). My travel photos have been exhibited in Delhi – on Ladakh in 2001, Samarkand and Bukhara in 2003 and Mustang in 2019.
How do you adapt to the food in different geographies? Do you prefer simple meals, or do you experiment with exotic dishes as well?
Food is an essential part of the travel experience. I will try local fare as long as it is vegetarian. But I am not fixated on food while travelling. I am very adaptable. I will even make do with bread and fruits if I have to. Once in the Sunderbans, I went without food two whole days, except for a few sour mangoes. Only fish was available.
There’s a chapter (in my book) on how I survived (struggled) as a vegetarian in China, which I visited 10 times. In Russia, during the motoring expedition lasting six weeks and 10,000 km, I subsisted on bread, cabbage salad and vodka.
Is a laptop part of your baggage so that you could jot down your stories at night? Are you tech-savvy or hesitant to use new gizmos?
I am reasonably tech-savvy. I have started using GoPro and even posted the video of my Bangalore-Goa trip on YouTube. I drove continuously for 15 hours with two breaks for meals and from there to Dandeli and Gokharna. I have always had a DSLR and additional lenses plus tripod. I take power banks and chargers. On long trips, I carry a laptop too. But I never write my stories immediately. I take notes and mull over them for a few days after I return before I start writing.
I am eyeing drones and might acquire one if travel opens up.
Which is your ultimate dream destination? And what is the best mode of travel you enjoy - trains, rough roads, camel/elephant backs, buses/cars or aircraft?
I enjoy wilderness more than anything else. I want to go where few humans go – like the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia or the vast wildernesses of Patagonia or the dense jungles of the Amazon or the Tibetan plateau. I am not attracted to cities and crowds. I enjoy trekking. I have done many treks in the high Himalayas including Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Base Camp, Kailash Manasarovar, Zanskar, Ladakh, Kargil, Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti and Machupicchu. I also love driving. I have done several road rallies that have taken me through some 18 countries.