Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My way is the highway

My way is the highway

As World Tourism Day approaches on Sept 27, Sunday Times tracks desi backpackers — that often ignored group which is slowly making its presence felt

Atul Sethi | TNN

    Animesh Rawal doesn’t mind calling himself kanjoos, a miser. But then, being a kanjoos can sometimes be a handy trait, especially if you are backpacking around the globe on a shoestring budget. The Bangalore-based former IT professional with a fondness for languages —his profile says he is fluent in English, Hindi and Indonesian, conversational in Spanish, and can “convincingly make a fool of myself in French” — has set for himself the challenge of backpacking around the world in six months, without spending more than Rs 2 lakh from his pocket (expenses on beer excluded). “The myth that ‘Indians don’t backpack’ has been broken time and again by desis from all over the globe,” says the 20-something globetrotter intent on busting the myth further with what he calls the ‘Do Peti Challenge’ — the Rs two lakh-challenge.
    Rawal epitomizes the rising generation of confident, young Indian backpackers who are increasingly hitting the road, often in the truest tradition of backpacking — taking each day as it comes and savouring the journey as well as the destination.
    Akshay Chhugani, who set up the Indian Backpacker Company, a travel planning outfit targeting foreign backpackers coming to India, says he was surprised to get a lot of business from Indian customers. “Our clients are mainly the young, often those in the 22-26 age group. The concept is especially popular among college students who may have visited popular destinations with their families and now want to experience the flavour of backpacking, usually in off-beat places.”
    Interestingly, there are more women backpacking now — at least to destinations outside India. Yogi Shah, CEO of Mumbai-based The Backpacker Co, says the ratio of Indian women to men backpackers going abroad is 60:40. “Popular destinations for Indian women backpackers are Europe and the UK,” he adds. But desi destinations are catching up fast, too — notwithstanding the perception of the country being unsafe for female backpackers. Meha Ved, who got bitten by the backpacking bug five years ago on a holiday to Dharamsala, has since been on backpacking trips to Gaumukh, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Ladakh and Kashmir, accompanied in her trips by another female friend. “Although we seldom saw a single girl or a bunch of girls
travelling, it never bothered us
because people went out of the
way to help us. For instance, when we were in Kashmir during the Ramzan month, and wanted to taste kahwa — the Kashmiri saffron tea — the waiter at a restaurant told us that it was not being served due to Ramzan. But soon, he got us two steaming hot cups of kahwa from somewhere and refused to take any money for it.”
    Such incidents among backpackers abound. An Indian couple that backpacked across Europe last year reminisces being stranded at an obscure railway station in Italy when they heard a familiar tune. It was Salman Khan’s song from his latest movie! They located the source of the song to a shop selling Indian groceries and got directions and a complimentary hot Indian meal.
    Europe and the Far East have always been popular with Indian backpackers. But, interestingly, the
style of backpacking changes when away from home. “Indians, by na ture are flashpackers, especially when travelling abroad,” says Chhugani. Flashpacking is a term used for affluent backpackers who travel with technological gadgets and are not averse to splurging on accommodation or travel options unlike the quintessential back packer who doesn't mind roughing it out.
    But such distinctions may be getting fluid as backpacking itself becomes more broad-based and in tune with the times. Shah says this is reflected in many little things. “Earlier, hostels which backpackers used were bottom-of the-barrel. But now, hostels offer private room options and are more evolved. Also, many back packers hitchhiked their way around, but now it’s illegal to do so in many countries. And, unlike the past when backpackers could take off when they wanted, now it’s impossible to get visas unless there is a fixed itinerary.”
    Flashpacker or backpacker — the term may vary, but the reason for travelling doesn’t. Subhashish Roy, who makes it a point to back pack inside India at least once every three months, says the soul of the backpacking experience lies in going off on a trip where nobody tells you what to do. “For me, it essentially means experi encing the unknown, mingling with the locals and getting a fla vour of their lives,” he says.
    TV actor Ejaz Khan, another ardent backpacker, echoes this thought, but adds another dimen sion to it. “Backpacking is often
    highly educative experience
One of my most memora ble backpacking trips was when I, along with a friend, stayed in small village near Nasik. We bathed in ponds and experienced village life. Through our interactions, we were able to understand the conditions that prompted most young men in the village to leave for the cities. It in spired us to do something constructive for rural em ployment in the future.” This, then, may con tain the essence of the backpacking experience — learning more about how others live. As someone once said, “ travel because there is no greater teacher.”

BLAZING A TRAIL More Indian women are backpacking, especially to destinations outside India

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