Kerala-based backpacker Arunima has travelled across India and visited 12 foreign countries so far. While many in today's generation love travelling, not many girls in our society enjoy the freedom to explore the world to their heart's content.
In such a scenario, Arunima is someone who stunned many with her daring expeditions and the courage to experience cultural practices as they are. She is currently on an African tour, pedalling through the continent and its remote hamlets on her bicycle all alone. The globetrotter finds exploring lands the biggest joy of her life. On one such expedition to Kenya, she opens up to us about her rich experiences and thoughts...
A girl who loves solo travelling
Arunima’s family, based in Ottapalam in Palakkad, consists of her father, mother, brother, and grandmother. It’s not that she ventured on the expeditions one fine morning out of an intense desire. Apparently, she used to undertake a lot of trips with her family and friends, right from her childhood days. However, the first solo trip that she embarked on was to Goa when she travelled by bus and train. That was the beginning, she says.
Arunima says, “I like to travel alone. As a ‘solo traveller, there won’t be anyone to accompany me on 99% of my journeys. I have no issues if someone travels along with me. But nothing matches the joy that I derive from my solo expeditions. Now I’m touring Africa on my bicycle all alone.” She says that many have enquired through social media whether they could accompany her. She says, “I’ve no problem if I meet some people en route and they accompany me for one or two days. Because those are people whom we don’t know. They are people like me who travel around. Whenever I was back home from my solo trips, I used to travel with my friends, on and off. Regardless, I like solo travelling the most.”
My life, my decision
Arunima says her family doesn't object to her decisions. She recalls, “Even from my childhood days, I was not the one to seek permission if I wanted to go somewhere. My family was naturally concerned when they learned it was Africa where I intended to go. But I told them there was nothing to worry about. That’s all. I never faced any difficulties from their side. They never opposed my going anywhere.”
It was in the middle of 2020 that she began to travel full time and now, her ambition is to spend the rest of her life, travelling. “I’m not interested in staying anywhere permanently,” says Arunima, who was a working woman until a few years ago. “My studies were based on the Civil Aviation sector. However, the jobs I did had no connection with my field of study. You need some money if you want to embark on journeys like this. So, I did all the jobs that came my way.”
Interestingly, she used to do part-time jobs from her Plus Two days. “I worked as a Junior Artist, Receptionist, Telecaller and the like. I have also done administrative occupations. However, it was my family who paid my college fees. They also used to give me money to go on trips and indulge in celebrations. Regardless, I used to earn money to lead an independent life. It was the money that I saved that helped me embark on full-time expeditions. Initially, I travelled across India. Then I started a YouTube channel. Now I have earnings from that,” explains the traveller.
From India to Nepal, and touring the rest of the world
The various promotional videos that she posted on social media helped her improve her income, reveals Arunima. “Currently, I don’t have any other source of Income. I travelled the length and breadth of the country for the first one-and-a-half years. Nepal was the first country that I visited outside India. After that, I toured various countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Oman, the UAE, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Presently I’m visiting Kenya, the 12th country on that list,” she reveals.
Support of a progressive family
While many Malayali families restrict women from making their own independent decisions, Arunima's folks were different, she says. “My brother and I could decide on matters such as which course to pursue, what job to do, whom to marry, and the like. We enjoyed the full freedom for all that after we turned 18. They will express their opinion, that's all. It is not them who should decide our lives, isn’t it? My family never said ‘no’ to any of the decisions that I took in my life. They have always accorded importance to my tastes and passions.”
While many would air discouraging opinions when you say you want to travel, if you truly wish to explore the world, you are prepared to face the objections, says Arunima. “You may face a lot of hurdles; it may be financial constraints or the pressure from your house and the like. If you have a burning desire to travel, then you can find and do any jobs for that. We have to convince our households that we are fully competent to make our own decisions upon attaining 18 years of age,” she explains.
Planning is required but sometimes won’t work
Travelling requires a certain amount of planning and preparation. But initially, Arunima embarked on journeys without them. “Back then, I used to fly carrying my stuff in a small bag. I used to seek 'lifts' aka free rides too to reach my destinations. However, ever since I embarked on globe-trotting on my bicycle, I decided not to fly anymore. I couldn’t meet the heavy flight expenses that I was incurring occasionally. That forced me to pre-plan the routes I had to take with the maximum details available,” she says.
Initially, she wanted to visit nearly 20 countries. “I drew a route map just to know whether I could travel to all those countries and cross the borders by road. Still, I was forced to make many changes during the travel. We couldn’t cross the road in Sudan. The cops would continue to take money from you if you are pedalling a cycle there. It was sweltering heat in Saudi when I reached there and hence could not ride the cycle. I couldn’t also make it to Jordan. So I didn’t travel to the four countries that had featured in my initial plan. Even if you plan everything in advance, you have to make changes to that. That’s only natural,” says Arunima.
Carried nothing with me to ensure safety
Safety is a big concern when women undertake solo expeditions. But, Arunima says she doesn't carry any weapon to ensure her safety. “I had taken with me a pocket knife and pepper spray while travelling in India. But all these are not allowed on flights. Hence, I couldn’t often carry them while visiting foreign countries. Also, there is no way you can get these items at the place where I’m currently in Africa. And it will burn a hole in my pocket if I purchase them online,” she says.
Upon revealing her plan to visit Africa, apparently, many people discouraged her. “They sarcastically asked me whether I was mad, riding a bicycle to Africa. It’s okay, at least if it was a bike, they told me. Many said it was foolishness to travel around in a country like Africa on a bicycle. But then, I had the belief that all would be fine. Except for one or two friends who asked me to enjoy the expedition to the fullest, the rest tried to dissuade me from undertaking the trip,” she remembers.
Not bogged down by unpleasant responses
While visiting a village in the interior of Africa, Arunima found that the women there do not cover their upper body portion, primarily due to the extremely hot climate. She clicked a photo in the same style of dressing and shared it on her Instagram page, following community guidelines. Although the photo was posted by covering modesty using emojis, it did not go down well with many people on the platform. She recalls, “Alongside comments appreciating the picture, there were also several distasteful remarks. The post generated over 3,000 comments, but I read only a few of them.
While a few fake IDs posted negative comments, about 99 per cent of people who saw the picture appreciated it and responded that they were proud of me. Some even advised me not to get bogged down by the bad responses. As far as I’m concerned, I want to explore a destination to its fullest, including its mountains, coastlines, city life, and parties. At times, I may get a bit more fascinated by some of these. I was keen to learn more about the tribes of Africa and this was precisely why I always pursued the dream of visiting that continent.
I wanted to spend time with them and learn about their life from close quarters. I have achieved that as well,” says the happy traveller.
Some of the comments on the picture were shocking, she admits. “The first thought that crossed my mind was whether the thought process of people reflected in them. That’s why I posted a photo elaborating on the sexual frustration experienced by Keralites. That too became a hot topic of discussion. Thus, I have learned about the vast gulf between real life and social media,” explains Arunima.
A food enthusiast
The traveller is apparently a food enthusiast as well. “At times, I feel that I live to eat. Upon reaching a new place, the first thing I enquire about is the local food delicacies. I love to taste new cuisines. If you attempt to have Indian food upon reaching a foreign land, it will only burn a hole in your pocket. It’s so costly there. In Kenya, you will get local food delicacies cheaply.
For instance, you will be able to buy one chapati, which is almost identical to the local parotta in Kerala, at just Rs.50, while the price back home is way cheaper. The same food will get costlier in posh restaurants.” Arunima says she always successfully finds cheap yet good restaurants to dine at. “If possible, I also try my hand at cooking. I always focus on my health while taking in food. Hence, I mostly prepare continental recipes like muesli, ragi, pasta, oats, salad, etc. They can be made very quickly too,” she says.
Africa is not that scary
Before kicking off her African visit, Arunima got in touch with several people living on the continent. Many described it as an unsafe place, she confesses. “I was told that I would be required to keep a huge amount in my hand and that I couldn’t camp there. Also pedalling around through the country would be so difficult that the cops would demand bribes. I guess those people I spoke to were concerned about my safety and thus, wanted to dissuade me,” understands the brave explorer.
Apparently, she was also warned about the possibility of strangers taking tourists at gunpoint and how someone was apparently gunned down for asking for a cigarette! “Worse still, people kept repeating such things even after my arrival in Africa. But my personal experience proved otherwise. Africa is such an impressive place to visit. I never had to encounter any frightening or bad experience as warned about. I was never scared of being attacked by people. I, however, had that feeling while travelling alone at night through India,” she says.
In Africa, people won’t stare at you, no matter what you wear. Neither do they regard women as just materials. Even those who are not well educated behave politely and respectfully towards you. I was told the policemen in Africa were very corrupt and misbehaving. But I happened to stay at several police quarters around here. Not only did they were gentlemanly with me, but they also offered me free food and accommodation. In my experience, Africa is a safe place. I’m looking forward to visiting 14 more African countries,” she says.
That scary night
During these trips, she also had a fair share of unforgettable and scary experiences. “While entering Kenya through the border areas of Moyale in Ethiopia, I was forced to keep pedalling even as darkness set in. Usually, I wind up my journey by 6 or 7 in the evening. That day, I could not find any villages en route. It was 9.30 in the night and I was still riding my bicycle. The light on my bicycle was soon set to die out, and I was so scared,” she remembers.
Thick woods lined up on both sides of the road and apparently, no houses could be spotted. “The road was completely empty, and I kept on moving ahead for kilometres on end without a break. That was the moment when I got scared the most. I kept on travelling for some two or two-and-a-half hours, so frightened and exhausted. Thankfully, the phone was yet to run out of battery charge and I kept talking to one of my friends. Once the light of the bicycle goes off, it will be all darkness around. There are no streetlights. It’s a forest with wild animals.
Some of them, like hyenas, are extremely dangerous. Looking on either side, the shadows of trees frightened me. Having heard that extortion is so common in these parts of the world, I feared that something like that would happen. My thoughts wandered, 'What would I do if I lost my phone and the like... Fortunately, I spotted a vehicle soon,” she says.
As soon as she saw its light from a distance, Arunima stood in the middle of the road and waved her hands, pleading with the driver to stop the vehicle. “It was a van that operated as a taxi. I put my bicycle into the vehicle and we went to a township nearby. This was my lone frightening experience in Africa. Earlier, I had encountered similar situations in Nagaland,” she says.
The hearsay stories
Even though she never had a first-hand experience, some of the stories she heard were frightening, says Arunima. Learning about the superstitious practices of people in a village called Keyfar in Ethiopia was one such experience, she says. “The villagers here apparently believe that newborn babies should develop their primary teeth on their lower gum or else it spells doom for the family. Hence, the infants who develop their baby teeth otherwise are taken to a hilltop by the village chieftain and are killed by throwing them down from a cliff. As these settlements are surrounded by dense forests, the police will not dare to enter these locations and initiate actions. At first, this story appeared as fiction but as I inquired about it, people confirmed the story as true and pleaded with me not to keep asking around. Although most people know about it, they dare not speak out. I was so shocked to hear this. For, the children are given so much care back home, irrespective of any problems they have,” she says.
Arunima continues to travel, experiencing new places, beliefs, rituals, and cultures particular to each of the regions. The youngster says, “Never take the opinion of others too seriously. Had that been the case, I would not have been able to give this interview from Kenya.”