A single backpacker resolves to travel all over the world alone- from Delhi to Thailand to Papua New Guinea .. to beyond
When I meet the effervescent Anjaly Thomas at a coffee shop, the first thing she tells me is that she loves life. And coffee. And travelling. And writing. And that she’s not quite sure what order she’d put all these things in; but she is pretty sure that coffee is right up there at the top!
I can’t help laughing along with her infectious energy as she – over a cup of midnight black coffee- tells us about how she became a solo traveller to reckon with.
With two older brothers, and liberal parents, Anjaly was always one of the boys. She made male friends more easily than female friends and never fit in completely in her convent school in Mangalore. One weekend, a gang of girls decided to escape for a trip to Goa. But as the day drew nearer, every one backed out one by one. Anjaly had built the trip so much in her head that she couldn’t bear to NOT go. So she decided to travel alone for the first time in her life. She had been to Goa before and wasn’t as afraid as she would’ve been if it was an absolutely new place. This first trip alone told Anjaly that you didn’t need a travelling companion, just a desire to get somewhere to start travelling.
I asked Anjaly if she ever travels with someone else, and she said with a laugh that after so many years of heading out alone, she can’t bear the complications of having a travel companion. (“My friends are most welcome to come along, but they’re likely to become my enemies by the time the trip ends”) Also, everywhere she goes she instantly becomes a part of the community of similar minded backpackers- planning their days together, sharing whatever food and provisions they can afford, exchanging tales- and in that sense one is never really alone.
After a degree in law, Anjaly chose to become a journalist with the Indian Express in Bangalore- a role that she believed will both offer her the freedom to travel and hone her writing and editing skills (She’s always believed that she had a book-or more- in her). The power of the Press Card and the heady rush of earning for herself meant that she was traveling somewhere nearly every weekend- be it Pondicherry or Yercaud.
And then one day, on almost a whim, she purchased a one-way ticket to Delhi. This was the first time she had to actually plan for a trip. She bought her first big backpackers bag and was alone with strangers in a train compartment for almost two days. But the trip did two things. It convinced her that people were fundamentally good, and that it’s alright to trust them (as exemplified by the countless strangers who shared advise and food with her during the journey). And it taught her how to trust her inner travellers’ instincts.
Within a day of being in Delhi, she was off to Dehradun, Rishikesh and Mussorie. When she came back to work fifteen days later, she knew she wanted to write about being a woman backpacker all over India, and set out to collect experiences for her tome. In her words, “suddenly it did not seem worth the effort to write anyone else’s story. I’d much rather write my story.”
Two years later Anjaly was still working on her book, except now she was stationed in Dubai (“More money meant more travel”, as she says).A couple of days before one of those famous Dubai long weekends – when the days add up mysteriously to give you ten days off at a stretch, she decided to travel to a ‘foreign location’. A quick research into places that offered us Indians visa on arrival suggested Thailand as a perfect backpacking destination. And before she knew it, she was on a flight to Thailand. A new language, a new culture, and new food- the overall newness of foreign travel threw her off-kilter for a bit. But it also convinced her that she could do this- travel alone, and travel to any part of the world she pleased. Suddenly, the book -Almost Intrepid- was altered to become one of her backpacking alone all across the world.
The next natural step in her progression as a traveler was to add an element of adventure to her trips. And the first of these adventures was a trek up the Kilimanjaro all by herself and a guide. She noticed that she was the only solo Indian girl doing this. It was also the beginning of a life-long love affair with the African continent- a region that Anjaly finds herself returning to again and again.
For a more unusual and offbeat adventure, Anjaly next decided to traverse to Kokoda, Papua New Guinea. A notoriously difficult trail known for its casualty rate and element of danger, it seemed like the ideal challenge to inveterate traveller Anjaly. It took her eight months to even get a visa for the place! But when she reached the end of the trail – all alone except for the two native guides, something in her snapped. She may have become the first Indian to walk the track but suddenly, she realized that she was traveling for herself, for the thrill of it- not for records or for ticking names of a list.
To Turkey, and onwards to Africa
Over the years, travelling to all these diverse places, meeting the locals and the other hardened travellers like her; Anjaly began to question what she could do to help some of the people she came across during these trips. This thought was especially crystallized over a cold winter in Turkey, when she came across a woman willing to sell her only coat for cash, so she could pay for her food.
She realized that she often carried less than the maximum baggage allowance allowed for her visits, and began to fill the remaining limit with food and medicines for the places she visited. When people back home asked who she gave these to, she always said- ‘anybody’. It could be the doorman of your hotel/dormitory, a tour guide you met during the stay, or someone you came across on the roads. Just as long as you were able to give them a little of what they needed. Over time, this process has formalized into a structured Travel and Relief program, where she announces the places she’s visiting beforehand along with a list of provisions she needs. Friends and families contribute with whatever they can, and have themselves taken to completing their baggage quota with bits and pieces for the locals of the places they’re visiting.
There’s no immediate travel on the horizon for Anjaly (She’s busy completing her next book), But she doesn’t see herself stopping any time in the near future. And she doesn’t see herself sipping a cup of coffee outside the Eiffel Tower in Paris, either. When I asked her which was her least favourite trip, she says none, and that she would go back to every single place she’s been to again if she could. The worst experience she could think of was of being hungry with a bowl of rice in China and not knowing how to use chopsticks (something she promptly redressed soon after). And the one unfulfilled dream she has is to climb Mount Everest (we wouldn’t be surprised if we hear from her from there soon!)
A backpacker at heart, for her the thrill of the travel is the solitary nature of exploring new locations on your own. Of testing your limits, and seeing what little you can manage without. Of immersing herself in local experiences and the warm community of backpackers around the world. We can’t wait to hear where she heads off to next!