Safe Road to Himachal: A Tale of Two Women Travellers

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To travel far and beyond is a wish of many, almost everybody. Similarly, to travel safe and solo in her own country is a wish of almost every Indian woman. So the question is “Is it really safe?” Well, nobody can answer that question with absolute certainty. However, a woman who has travelled that road at least once can definitely share her experience.

10 nights and 11 days of Himachal and Amritsar: a trip of a lifetime, I shall call it. Sometimes all you need to plan a wonderful trip is an enthusiastic companion and courage, apart from time and money: a good companion (self-company included) to create and share the memories with and courage to face the challenges that are bound to come your way. If someone tells you travelling alone (especially for a woman or women in India) is a piece of cake,  he/she is obviously lying or has no experience. Also, if someone tells you that such a task is impossible, then again he/she is exaggerating or has never had the courage to try it.

My wonderful companion, a close female friend, and I started our trip from Bangalore to Delhi by flight. Then, we hired a car for the entire trip that took us to Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Dalhousie, Amritsar, Chandigarh, and back to Delhi. We had the privilege of the pleasant company of our driver, who was from Himachal and had great knowledge of the places around. It astonishes me how one can learn so much about a place and the culture by just interacting with the locals of that place. As far as safety was concerned, we felt absolutely safe and comfortable with our escort.

Safety tip 1: Choose an escort or rental service from a well established agency and make sure the agency is informed about the traveller(s) being solo woman/women so that they take extra precautions while choosing the right escort.

We started our trip early in the morning from Bangalore and managed to cross five states and reach Shimla by night fall.

Safety tip 2: Another important aspect of safe travel is a well-scheduled itinerary. One must make sure the travel time is mostly during daylight and reach the hotel/homestay before dusk. This also ensures that you get a good night’s rest after a long day and keeps you energised for the adventures of the following day.

One can be careful, but never be too careful. Unpleasant situations may arise anytime without any prior notice. One such event happened to us in Khajjiar, Dalhousie. Khajjiar is a beautiful vast plain bordered by pine trees with the backdrop of scenic hills. It is a place where adventure games such as paragliding, horse riding, and zorbing are offered to tourists. Like many other tourist sites, this place is packed with photographers who insist on clicking your photographs and printing them within few minutes. One such guy pestered us for quite sometime and managed to convince us to go a little inside the woods bordering the plain, where according to him was a scenic location to click photos. I need to give credit to my friend here, for she had a bad feeling about this from the beginning.  I on the other hand being the I-am-way-too-optimistic-for-reality kind had to learn things the hard way. The minute we entered the woods and found it isolated, our sense of unease spread like wildfire. To confirm our fears, the guy started behaving too friendly and invading our personal space. We, thank God for our common sense, decided instantly that we wanted to take photos of people and horses on the main field and walked back to the main area without giving the way-too-friendly photographer an explanation for our coordinated change of mind.

Safety tip 3: My  experience marks this as the most important part of safe travel. Trust your instincts and use common sense at all times. Do not get carried away by your excitement.

With an exception of this not-so-pleasant experience, we had quite an amazing trip and met some wonderful people who were kind and decent. Having had the experience of travelling to quite a lot of places, I can say that Himachal and Amritsar are pretty safe for women travellers. These places must surely be on one’s bucket list for travel in India.

Speaking of bucket lists, here is what you can do (I insist you do) at the following destinations for guaranteed fun/joy:

Haryana/Chandigarh: Eat authentic punjabi food at a highway dabha. 

Shimla: Shop till you drop. All those pashminas and soft wool (sigh)! Also, buy some local apple wines and juices. 

Manali: Visit Old Manali and take part in a karaoke night at a local cafe.

Dharamshala: Turn those huge prayer wheels at the local monastery.

Amritsar: Buy those amazing Juttis from the Jutti Bazaar. Witness the gate closing event at the Attari-Wagah border.

One can never predict the kind of experiences one might have and hence that leaves us wanderers with only one option: Take chances and have courage to explore, for you might just have an life-altering trip, an important life lesson, or (like in my case) maybe both.

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Arambol, the Goa that I know and fell in love with.

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Christmas is around the corner and what is Christmas without a vacation. For some, it is the snow clad mountains and for the rest, it is most likely the sun, sand, and party scenes. For me, it’s the latter. I wouldn’t mind the former though. Call it wanderlust.

Goa is without a doubt the most sought after destination for many Indians and foreigners alike. I’m sure you have already conjured the image of a bikini clad babe with a drink in her hand partying by the sea shore. Well, that’s not far from the truth. It is definitely that and a lot more. I have seen and experienced a different kind of Goa that most of you may not have heard of.

Some of the most popular beaches in Goa are Baga, Anjuna, Calangute, and Vagator. These are the happening places and, hence, also the most crowded beaches of Goa.

I have been visiting Goa every Christmas for the last 10 years with my family. Christmas means Goa to me. And when I say Goa, it is none of the above mentioned places. I have hardly been at these “happening” beaches. On my first visit to Goa, I lost my heart to Arambol, also known as Harmal. It is a beautiful fisherman village located in North Goa, very close to Maharashtra border. The place is very popular among the foreign tourists. You will find very few Indian travelers, mainly because they have not heard about this place. I guess that adds to the charm of the place and makes it less crowded and serene.

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The place has changed over the years and has become commercialized, yet there is an old charm that keeps the soul of this place alive. That is probably why the same old tourists visit this place every year religiously. I personally know some of those foreigners who have been coming here for more than 30 years. I have heard so many of their wonderful stories and experiences in India.

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I came to know about Arambol from a family friend, an amazing man from England named John Aris, who has travelled the world and found peace at this little village in Goa. He is around 75 years of age and the most active person I have met in my life. I could probably write a different blog or even a book to describe his vibrant personality. He is a musician who plays regularly at the local cafes in Arambol. Just like him, you can find so many brilliant musicians and other talented people from different parts of the world here. November to February is the peak season, and most of these tourists stay here for that entire period. This place actually kind of grows on you and makes you feel at home. It did for me.

There are few things that are unique to Arambol, apart from its natural charm. The first is the sweetwater lake. Have you ever stood on soft beach sand with the mighty sea on one side and a beautiful natural lake on the other? I guess, no. How about a swim in a fresh water lake, surrounded on three sides by green lush trees, and then walk right into the sea and meet the waves head on? Sounds good? Well, it feels fantastic. I bet you can’t find this experience anywhere else in the world.

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Sweet Water Lake in Arambol, Goa.

And then there is the music played in the evenings on the beach. A group of amazingly talented musicians play their instruments, with the prominent sound of the tabla. I can fondly remember every evening that I have sat around that gathering listening to that blissful music along with the sound of the waves and watching the sunset with the sea breeze ruffling my hair. None of my other beach experiences have come even close.

This does not mean you cannot party here. There are many cafes and beach shack restaurants that organise all night parties with great music, cool crowd, and good food and drinks. There is also a beautiful local church where you can attend the midnight Christmas mass. It is a wonderful way to start your Christmas and the New Year.

The other thing is to try paragliding in Arambol, close to the sweet water lake. You will get an amazing view from the top, overlooking the sea and the hills. They will cost you somewhere between Rs 700 and Rs 1500. Do bargain for the best price. However, you will have to walk a mile on the shore to reach this place. There are lot of beach shacks on the way where you can try a variety of cuisines and do some shopping at the local stores. Ask anybody there for the sweetwater lake and they will show you the direction.

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Photo Source: Internet

Like I mentioned, this is basically a small fisherman village. The locals here depend on fishing and the rent they get during the tourist season. So, you will be able to find accommodation here at a reasonable price as well as the opportunity to go on a fishing trip. If you go early in the morning (6-8 am), the fishermen will take you in a group on their fishing boats far inside the sea. You can also catch sight of dolphins if you are lucky. The trip will cost you around 200 per person, but the experience is surely worth more than that. You can maybe buy some freshly caught fishes from them to show your gratitude.

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I’m running short of expressions to justify these experiences. I can assure you that you can not see this kind of Goa in the other well-known parts of Goa. However, I’m sure there might be other hidden treasures, such as Arambol, that I’m yet to see.

Having said that all, my heart is now in conflict. I couldn’t help but write about this place that I love, but then I’m also secretly wishing that the place remains hidden and unknown for many.

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Himachal, a heaven on earth. Amritsar, a heaven in heart.

img_20161016_131907I have always wanted to travel the world alone. Go on a solo trip. Write down beautiful moments then and there, experience solitude and, basically, be there, do that all by myself. However, for a girl from a broad minded yet conservative family, that seemed not so easy. Plus, being the baby of the family, the simple wish turned out to be complicated.

I knew there was no way that I could convince my mother and two older protective brothers that I, who have never stayed away from home or shown any other “independent female” streak until now, suddenly want to explore the world on my own. Not with family, not with my girl gang, but alone. I could see visions of shocked faces of my family members. Hell, there was no way.

This was the best time though. Having quit my  job recently, leaves were not a concern. And a bit of savings money did definitely help. The only barrier was informing or rather taking permission from my family. While discussing this thought with a group of my girl friends, I found a willing traveler who had just the same thing on her mind. She wanted a break from her job and go on a trip. “Anywhere, I don’t care. You plan. I will come along” she said. Now, this was something I had not expected but the thought of travelling with a friend did not seem that bad. And, it was definitely a step closer to “solo travel.” Right? And, maybe, just maybe, I can convince my family.

That is all I needed to make that trip happen. The destination had already been on my mind for quite sometime. Himachal, a paradise, that I have had the opportunity to visit once few years ago. I had been to Mcleodganj, Dharamshala. And I could never get enough of that beautiful place then. I wanted now to go back there with my new wanderer eyes.

Himachal for 10 nights and 11 days. Heaven! Our destinations included Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Dalhousie, Amritsar, and Chandigarh. Our journey from Bangalore to Shimla was covered in 10 hours. Bangalore to Delhi by flight. Then, by road to Shimla through Haryana. That itself was a memorable experience for I had passed through 5 Indian states in less than 10 hours. For someone who takes pride in her travel, that was a big milestone.

And the memories had only begun with that. How can I forget the most amazing breakfast I had in a highway dabha in Haryana. Hot and delicious aloo paratha with a dollop of desi butter. Hands down, it was the best breakfast I have had. I did not need any food till that evening. And being a foodie, such days are pure bliss.

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Attari-Wagah Border 

Shopping in Shimla is a woman’s dream. The Mall road, Shimla, is the place. This experience should be on every woman’s “to do” checklist. The varieties of wool, the pashminas, and their unique designs is a must in every wardrobe.

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The Mall Road, Shimla.

Then comes the famous Manali. Old manali is a place you want to be. The title of the song “manali trance” justifies the place. This place will surely put to you on trance mode, if you know what I mean. Be sure to learn the “code words” or rather the right terms you need to know for the things you need. It can be quite tricky. No more on that.

Moving on, we visited the Vashist temple that is popular for its hot spring. There is a pond like enclosure where the hot spring is collected. The water is quite hot. People take bath here. It was quite a shocking experience to see women, foreigners and locals, taking bath here naked. Really naked. If you are the shy kind, you can definitely look down and just keep your feet in the hot water. It feels really good. And no, men are not allowed here. There are obviously separate enclosures for men and women.

One must also try river rafting and river crossing in Manali.  It is an amazing experience. Manali is definitely for the adventurous and the “I just want to chill out” folks.

Next stop, Dharamshala. Located on a scenic hill is the abode of Dalai Lama. It is one of the most peaceful places I have visited. The silence, the wind, the view adds to the charm of the place. Mcleodganj, a pretty little town close to Dharamshala is another jewel.

Dalhousie is a clean, well-matained hill station. The Indian army takes care of the neatness of this city. They have few well-known educational institutions for the rich kids. The city sure looks like it belongs only to the wealthy and sophisticated.

We moved from Himachal with a heavy heart only to be soothed in the holy city of Amritsar. Golden temple is not only the most gorgeous temple but also the most generous place. The amount of hard work put in and humble services by the volunteers can make one cringe in shame. The question “What am I doing with my life?” will surely surface. The hospitality, the Langar (free food) provided to each and every one at all times of the day can make one realise the true meaning of service and selflessness.

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Golden Temple, Amritsar.

And as if so much emotional enlightenment was not enough, you get to say hi to your patriotic self at the Attari-Wagah border. Two nations separated by only one big gate? No, it is more than that. It is two nations that look down at each other, two nations that are ready to kill each other, and the citizens of two nations torn between patriotism for their nation and basic humanity.  And to add fuel to that raging emotions was the visit to Jallianwala Bagh. A place stained by the blood of over 350 innocent people. A massacre that took place in the year 1919. The rage over such cruelty was like a fierce storm in every person visiting that place. Every soul present there was praying for the departed souls.

The drive back to Chandigarh and then Delhi was a quiet affair. The feeling of reaching the end of an amazing trip had put our thoughts and enthusiasm to silence. Sometimes it’s not the number of days or the amount of time we have had in life, rather it’s the kind of experiences and feelings you have felt in the days you have had.

Poetry of the soul!

May your words flow like a swift river, may your thoughts be as refreshing as a cool breeze, and may your imagination be as vivid as a rainbow.

In the Air!

Like a bird I flew,
Over a scenic view.
Far stretched the blue sea,
The green trees way below me.
Glided through the cool air,
Adrenaline pumped to high gear.
Oh what amazing fun it was;
A moment never to let pass!

-Paragliding at Arambol beach, Goa.

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Serenity by the Sea!

Sitting by the shore,
I HEAR the mighty waves crash and roar.
Sitting by the shore,
I SEE the crimson sea hypnotising me.
Sitting by the shore,
I SMELL the sea weeds, deep inside that dwell.
Sitting by the shore,
I FEEL the smooth sand tickling my heel.
Sitting by the shore,
I TASTE the golden prawn and the delicious wine.
My senses feeling so Divine!

– From Goa, with love.

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Nature’s Bounty!

Silver droplets drizzled all over, mighty clouds shadowing the sun; on the banks of river Tungabhadra, where she flowed proud and calm.
Green fields and bright white lilies, sheltered by the fierce western ghats. Icy cool wind blew while the pretty birds flew. Chirps of little birds echoing in the silence and then the call of a peacock far away…
What a sight it was !

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Rainbow!

The black clouds drifted apart, away from the sunshine; dodging and teasing, making way for the clear blue sky. Each trying to win over the other, each trying to prove who is better. The sun versus the rain…It was a game of love.
Then, she appeared through the clouds like a goddess, dressed in her magnificent clad glamourous and colourful. She slashed a frown disapproving the behaviour of her notorious children. It was a disapproval of a mother, a goddess, filled with so much love that it was called a rainbow.

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The Brave Heart!

Into the fierce sea he sailed,

Like a warrior who never failed.

Sailing against the tide,

With the wind on his side.

Held on to the strings and his board,

And suddenly into the air he soared.

What a mighty sight it was,

Even great words would be at loss.

– Parasailing at Arambol, Goa.

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