Most of us have very fond memories of the first big solo travel experience. I have often heard many travellers recounting stories from their first solo travel experience. A trip to some far-off exotic place filled with adventure and cool photographs. For a long time, I had often told stories of my first solo travel experience, which was a weeklong round trip from Bangalore to Bangalore. I had hopped on my trustworthy old motorcycle and travelled from Bangalore to Coorg, then on to Mangalore then to Sakaleshpur and back to Bangalore. However, I realized that this wasn’t my first solo travel experience!
My first solo travel experience was neither a soul-searching trip to some exotic land nor one filled with adventure. In fact, I had not given much thought about this travel experience, and had relegated it to some unreachable part of my mind’s archive. But the mind behaves in mysterious ways, and this afternoon I had a very hazy memory of my first solo travel experience. With the help of some good old tea, I was able to nudge and retrieve this memory with a fair amount of clarity.
My first solo travel experience was in the year 2000 when I was 13 years old. No, I was not running away from home, and no I did not know that backpacking was cool! This was a journey between Coorg and Calicut, the much-awaited annual visit to my grandparent’s place in Calicut, Kerala. If you have read my bio, you would probably know that I was born and raised in Coorg. If not, here is a link that will give you a peep into my connection with Coorg and Zen. (Link)
I lived with my parents in the mountains of Coorg, and my grandparents lived near the coast of Calicut. We were separated by about 200 Kilometres, back then it meant about 7 hours of journey, and changing about 5 different local buses. A couple of times a year, my parents and I would make this trip. These were perhaps the only trips that we did back in those days. Needless to say, these were one of the highlights of my year as a kid.
In the summer of 2000, my parents thought that as a teenager, I was perfectly capable of travelling solo, and visit my grandparents! I was excited at this prospect. After having done the same trip many years in the past with my parents, I knew the routine. Nevertheless, my parents helped me with the planning; they sat me down and wrote the whole thing on a sheet of paper. It had all the details, including phone numbers of family and friends who were on the way, just in case I needed help!
The night before the journey my Amma helped me pack the essentials for the trip. I was going to spend 4-6 weeks of my 8-week summer vacation with my grandparents. My school bag became my day pack in which she had packed some of my clothes, an umbrella, and a few other essentials. Since my school bag was small, I also had another bag to carry my clothes, a repurposed grocery shopping bag. As always, she insisted on me dividing my money and stashing it away in several secret locations instead of putting it all in one place. A very thoughtful travel tip from her, which I discontinued following at some point in the past few years. Looking back, I think this is a good practice to start following again.
On the morning of the journey my Amma woke me up around 5:30 and made sure that I had my breakfast. She had also packed some snacks to eat on the way and two bottles of water.
The first part-
The nearest bus stop to my home was a kilometre away. Back in those days summer mornings in Coorg were relatively cold, and Amma insisted that I wear a sweater. I said bye to her and left home around 6.45 with my Papa who took me there on his old scooter. We had to wait for another 10 minutes before the bus showed up. The next town was about 25 kilometres away. I got into the bus, and I clearly remember it had a green and silver paint scheme and rattling windows. Since it was early in the morning, the bus was fairly empty, and I got a seat by the window. As the bus moved, I waved bye to Papa, my excitement overtaking my nervousness of my first solo travel experience. I could see from the windows the first rays of sunshine, not the glowing orange sunshine but a shy hint of gold peeping through the misty Coorg air. The crisp air was punctuated with the smell of the incense that the crew had lit up inside the bus. The road snaked through the coffee estates; and the bus soon started to get filled up by the workers from the coffee plantations. Wild elephants are a real threat, so the workers always moved around in groups.
The second part-
I reached the next town by 8 AM and my next bus was at 8:30 Am. I knew where to find the next bus; it was next to the newspaper stand. Usually when I travelled with my parents, my Papa would always pick up a newspaper and my Amma would pick up a magazine. Like my Papa I picked up a newspaper. I reconfirmed from the newspaper vendor that it was the right bus and got into it. I was once again lucky to find a window seat, perks of being an early bird.
This was the longest and hardest part of the journey. This part had 80 kilometres to be covered and would usually take around 3 hours. The hard part of this journey was covering about 30 kilometres of windy roads through the mountains. This was particularly hard because the roads were windy enough to induce the much-dreaded travel nausea! Having done this journey in the past, I already had a trick up my sleeve to avoid travel nausea! I took out the lemon my Amma had put in my backpack and sniffed it, the citrus smell was refreshing enough to keep me from getting nauseated!
After having negotiated the windy roads the bus crossed the border from Coorg, to Kerala. As in the past, the bus stopped at the highway eatery on the Kerala side of the border. This stop was at a shop with questionable hygiene and stinky toilet. Usually, Papa would have a coffee from the shop, Amma and I would give it a miss. On that day too, I did not eat or drink anything from there. The day was getting warmer, I took off my sweater and got down from the bus, stretched myself and walked up to the culvert nearby. This was something that I liked to do on all our journeys, so that I could see the little fish that swam there in the crystal-clear water from the mountains. After fifteen minutes I was back in my seat waiting for the bus to start moving. Soon, the bus started moving, after minutes later we crossed a bridge across a river and made another turn which marked the end of the mountain road. The crisp mountain air was replaced by the humid coastal air, the calm wilderness of the mountains was quickly being replaced by small towns and then by bigger towns. By around 11:30 I reached the next town.
The next town was a town bigger than the towns in Coorg. I got down from the bus to be greeted by the cacophony of hawkers in the bus stand. I ignored the hawkers calling me and made my way to the public toilet which was fairly well maintained. It was a pay and use toilet and the charges were probably half a rupee back then! Once I had washed my face and relieved my bladder, I walked towards the bay from where I had to take the next bus.
The third part-
It was fairly easy to find the bay where my next bus was parked. This bay was right next to a small coffee booth. On most of occasions, my parents and I would have a coffee from their coffee machine, not because the coffee was great, but because express coffee machines were a novelty back then. I had a coffee and a snack from that shop and reconfirmed from the shopkeeper that it was the right bus. It was particularly important for me to reconfirm because I couldn’t read the Malayalam script. Malayalam is the state language of Kerala and my mother toungue and I had only learnt to speak in Malayalam at home and not to read or write; this was because I studied in Karnataka where the state language was Kannada. After living in Fort Cochin for 5 years, I can read a bit of Malayalam, at least enough to read name boards.
I boarded the bus and was again lucky to find a seat by the window! The bus was scheduled to depart only after 15-20 minutes. Despite the coffee and the snack, I was still hungry. I ate some of the snacks that Amma had packed. Once my growling tummy was pacified, I took out the newspaper and started reading it. Reading newspapers has been an ingrained habit in me since I was in school, I have now replaced the humble newspaper with mobile news applications.
After about twenty minutes the conductor blew the whistle and the bus started to move. My next destination was about 50 kilometres away, a 90-minute journey. On other highways, one would usually notice that between two towns there are vast stretches of empty vacant land or forests or farmlands. But, the coastal highways of Kerala are different. Here you will find that the whole highway is lined by shops and houses on both sides. Rarely will you come across a stretch of road that is deserted. The coastal highways are sometimes like a wide road going in the middle of a really long city! Out of my window I saw town after town fly by. Every now and then I could catch a glimpse of the ocean through the gaps in the buildings when the highways came closer to the ocean.
The bus was a local bus and weaved through all the small towns stopping at a few them. At every stop there were street hawkers who come by the windows trying to sell whatever knickknacks and snacks they have. When I travelled with my parents, they would usually buy me roasted peanuts and candied ginger, sometimes they would even buy me sugar coated fennel seeds that was sold in a box shaped like a car. This time around, I did not want to break traditions, so I went ahead and bought these things from a hawker; I think the price was Rs.1 for each of these treats!
There was one other thing that I was eagerly looking forward to on this leg of the journey. On a certain segment of the highway, there is a place where the railway line cuts through the highway. Every time a train passes through that line, they close the gates and we had to wait until the train crossed. On most occasions we would have to face this temporary stoppage on our journey, a stoppage that all grown ups thought was a big inconvenience. But, for a kid like me, this was the highlight! I grew up in the hills and we did not have any railway lines. For me, watching a train whizz by was something incredible! On every trip, I would pray that we encounter one of these stoppages. My prayers were answered this time when we stopped at the railway crossing. I mustered enough courage to get down from the bus and walked towards the railway gate to get a closer look! This was something that I was never ever allowed to do while with my parents. The moment that my parents told that I could travel solo, I had planned this adventure! I waited by the gates for a few minutes, soon came the train blowing its horn and trumpeting down the tracks, what a sight! As soon as the last compartment had crossed, I ran back to the bus. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a nagging fear that the bus would go leaving me behind! I got into the bus happy with my little adventure. This has been a secret that I kept from my parents until this point.
The fourth part-
I reached my next destination maybe after 1 in the noon. This time of the day during the summers are very hot in Kerala. When I travelled with my parents, we always bought a ginger lemon soda from a small booth in the bus stand. So, I walked up to that booth and treated myself to a nice cold ginger lemon soda. I was making sure that I got to experience all the little things that were a quintessential part of this journey. A journey that we undertook twice a year as a family.
Since this was lunch time, the bus station wore a deserted look. I knew where to find my next bus, but I wanted to make sure that I was getting on to the right bus. I found a traffic policeman standing in a corner and asked him where I could find the bus. The policeman was slightly puzzled seeing a teenager alone with a bag. He asked me if I was running away from home! I said, “No, I am going to meet my grandparents who lived in the town nearby”. He was probably not convinced; he asked my name and where I came from and where I was going to. I gave him all the answers and to alleviate his doubts I showed him the sheet of paper on which my parents had written down all the instructions and phone numbers. Finally, he was convinced. He took me to the right bus and told the ticket collector that I was traveling alone, and that he has to make sure that I got down at the right station, which was also the final stop for the bus.
This time I did not get to choose my seat. Instead the ticket collector asked me to sit on his designated seat, which was right behind the back door. Probably because he could keep an eye on me. The bus whizzed through the little towns; this was a short 20 Kilometre ride which would take around 45 minutes. The stops were more frequent than earlier. On most occasions the bus screeching to a halt only to be stopped for about 30 seconds, just giving people enough time to get in and get out. This was a proper local bus that catered to the short-term commuting needs of the locals.
The ticket collector chatted me up while I was there on the bus and wanted to know about my journey. He was pleasantly surprised to know that I was only 13 and had travelled thus far alone. He also, wanted to know what I was going to do after I get down at my next destination, and how I was going home from there. I told him that I have a cousin who has a juice bar in the town and my aunt would be waiting for me. It turned out that my cousin’s juice bar was a popular one in the town, and that is where he and the driver usually had their evening tea and snack!
Finally, when we reached there, and went straight to the juice bar where we met up with my cousin. I had reached there much earlier than anticipated, and my aunt hadn’t arrived yet. So, I had a lemonade and my cousin put me in an auto rickshaw to take me home which was 5 kilometres away.
The final part-
This was a breeze, the auto rickshaw rode through the bumpy narrow roads, we passed the post office, the theatre, the school, the big temple, and the town square. Then, the rikshaw dived into one of the unpaved narrow lanes, a few turns later I could see the familiar looking small brick house tucked away behind palm trees. I got down and made a dash for the last fifty metres to the house. I was greeted by squeals from my grandma!
I had successfully completed my first solo travel!
Do you recall your first solo travel experience? I would be happy to hear your stories in the comments section.
P.S- This travel has been reconstructed from 20 years ago. The pictures that have been posted here are either recent pictures taken by my, or pictures taken by other people to whom I have given due credits.