Femdom Travels Inc.
They are ready to drive off the map for a taste of freedom. Varuna Verma on women roadies
Stuck inside her SUV for the night, in snow-clogged Baralacha - a 16,000-feet mountain pass in Jammu and Kashmir's Zanskar Valley - Nidhi Tiwari had an epiphany. "High-altitude road trips had turned routine. I decided to do something epic," recalls the Bangalore-based outdoor education professional.
Tiwari planned to traverse continents. In 2015, along with two women friends, she completed a 23,800-kilometre transcontinental road trip from Delhi to London, via 17 countries - Myanmar, China, Uzbekistan, Russia, some others in Europe - in 95 days.
En route, all three were stranded at the Indo-Myanmar border for a month, drove the Silk Route, met a Kyrgyz official who was a Mithun Chakraborty-fan, bought diesel in black in Uzbekistan and used Google translator to communicate in every country except two.
Tiwari also started an organisation, Women Beyond Boundaries, to encourage women to drive long distances and also equip them with motoring skills. "Being on the road is liberating," she says.
Road trips are no longer a "man thing". Like Tiwari, many Indian women are getting behind the wheel and hitting the highway on all-girl jaunts, fixing flat tyres and overheated engines along the way.
Sunitha Dugar has no problems manoeuvring a hulk of an XUV 500 through Chennai's chaotic traffic. "I've been doing it for 15 years," she says. Even then, whenever the family went on road trips, her husband did the driving.
Dugar broke protocol last year. She did a 5,000-kilometre road trip from Kanyakumari to Kashmir with two women college buddies. "I bought a second-hand Ford Eco Sport, did a crash course in car repair, went on a test drive to Wayanad, Kerala, and was good to go," says Dugar, who started a women-only travel portal, The Traveling Divas, post her road trip.
The trio completed the drive in seven days. They had their moments of thrills driving through the forests of Pench National Park after dark and getting grounded in Gwalior with a breakdown.
The roadies got stuck on the last leg of the journey when a landslide cut off the Jammu-Srinagar highway. A cop, surprised to find three women in a Tamil Nadu registered vehicle, helped them. "He let us break queue and head to Srinagar with an army convoy," says Dugar.
Pune-based Vidula Tade rolled out her travel start-up, BuffyFish, last January, with a 5,000-kilometre, women-only, coastal road trip from Mumbai to Calcutta via Kanyakumari. The 28-day trip was sponsored by a corporate house, which lent the group of five a Scorpio.
Women on long-distance drives draw diverse reactions. On reaching Kochi, Tade called the hotel for directions. "I was asked to pass the phone to the driver," she recalls.
Meenakshi Arvind has ticked off India, Europe and North America from her road trip bucket list. Earlier this year, she was part of one of the first teams to traverse the newly opened India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway.
Arvind's next milestone is transcontinental. In 2017, she sets off on a 70-day, 24,000-kilometre trip from Coimbatore to London, with three women travellers.
Scouting for travel partners, Arvind found more women, than men, interested in the journey. "That's how the idea of an all-women team happened," says the Coimbatore-based industrialist.
Sharmishta Chakravorty, on the other hand, finds solo trips - on her 500cc motorcycle - most meditative. "I do one every month. The road teaches you so much," says the founder of Musafirs Motorcycle Club.
Motorbikes aren't just for men. The Musafirs club launches its women chapter, MuGals, soon. It will be organising women-only tours and workshops on the mechanics of motorcycles.
Nidhi Tiwari is also going solo. Only a fortnight ago, she left on a road expedition across the Siberian Arctic. Driving on a permafrost highway, at temperatures below - 65° Celsius will be a test in endurance. Tiwari plans to take it a kilometre at a time.