I had been longing to return to India, one of my favorite countries in the world. But I was hesitant as I didn’t particularly want to go there by myself. India was not a country where I felt comfortable travelling alone as a gray-haired, 57-year-old American woman—although India is dearly beloved to me.
I had been there three times before—each time with a group. This time, I was determined to find a women’s group to travel with in order to experience India from a feminine point of view. My search began. After researching many travel companies, F5 Escapes—a Bangalore-based women’s travel company—stood out to me.
Another aspect of Ladakhi society fascinating to me is the relative freedom of women compared to other parts of India.
I began corresponding with Malini Gowrishankar, and I immediately felt her warmth and sincere desire to help me plan my visit to India. Ultimately, I decided to sign up for the Ladakh trip taking place in July 2015. Since I’d always been fascinated by the Himalayan Mountains and had travelled to Bhutan and Nepal already, Ladakh was the perfect trip for me.
I was eager to visit Ladakh in order to learn more about its Tibetan-like culture and people. Though apprehensive about its extremely high altitude (which I had never experienced before), I knew I had to experience a place with such rich history and culture. Another aspect of Ladakhi society fascinating to me is the relative freedom of women compared to other parts of India.
The first leg of my trip was from Washington D.C to New Delhi. F5 Escapes helped me find accommodation in Delhi for a few days in order to acclimate before flying to Ladakh. Delhi in July is extremely hot, and it can be challenging to someone not used to the climate. However, it is a fascinating city with many historic sites. My accommodations turned out to be a wonderful surprise, a home away from home. The Tree of Life B&B and owner Ashwani Bazaz offered me kindness, conversation, and a warm environment in which I felt comfortable as a solo female traveler.
Only then, I realized that I was the only foreigner and was twice their age.
In Delhi, I was able to experience the metro system for the first time which was very convenient and efficient. It wasn’t until the day of the flight to Ladakh that I met my six travel mates. Only then, I realized that I was the only foreigner and was twice their age. Once I got over that shock, it turned out to be the most memorable trip of my life.
We stayed at local and well-researched homestays throughout Ladakh—quaint and simple places with a home-like feel. Home cooked meals were provided which included fresh and local food. I ate many dishes for the first time, and sharing food Indian style was a great experience. Being vegetarian was easy, and my Indian travel mates soon felt like daughters to me. They looked out for me and wanted to ensure that I was well taken care of at all times. Through them, I learned a lot about the cultures, religions, traditions and history of the area and their knowledge enhanced my journey.
As the days passed, I felt like I had known them all my life. We spent ten days travelling to various parts of Ladakh, riding in a small van over mountainous terrain while singing, eating and laughing. With them, I was able to reach the highest altitude I have ever experienced. We crossed the Khardung Pass (one of the highest mountain passes in the world), visited SECMOL school in Leh and drank butter teas for the first time while listening to a famous blind Ladakhi folk singer Thukjey Dolma. Lastly, we went white water rafting on the Zanskar River.
The rafting trip was the highlight of the entire visit. The scenery was unforgettable. The altitude of the mountains and the beauty of the Zanskar River was something that I had never experienced before. Located in the Zanskar Valley of the Himalayas where the glacial waters flow and cut through jagged terrain past snow-capped peaks, the area is stunning.
We were a unique sight: a gray-haired 57-year-old American woman paddling with an all-Indian group high up in the Himalayans.
It was here that my true essence emerged and I was able to utilize my unique qualities. The rafting company that F5 Escapes used had two groups going that day: our all women’s group and an all men’s group (comprised of former Indian Army officials). In order to balance the two rafts, they mixed the groups. The men were positioned into the front and back where power was needed and the women were in the middle.
As a former dragon boater, I was strong, as well as familiar with the protocol and strokes needed for the raft (although I kept silent). Within minutes of beginning the rafting trip, the boat guide realized my strength and coordination. He moved me to the front of the boat to be the leader. I called out the strokes and paddled hard. The men were in awe, and unity developed. We laughed, paddled and worked our way down the river. We were a unique sight: a gray-haired 57-year-old American woman paddling with an all-Indian group high up in the Himalayans.
After ten full days, we made our return trip through Delhi and back to our homes. Sadness crept in as I missed my new Indian family. While we were no longer physically together, we remain together in spirit. My traveling companions downloaded an free international texting app on my phone to keep in touch. We are forever connected and realized that we have more things in common than we initially recognized. Age and hair color have nothing to do with our connection, and we are now busy planning next year’s adventure.
Top photo by Mike Alexander (Creative Commons)