She’s trekked through rainforest in a downpour, accidentally locked herself in an Iranian minaret, and found herself adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Writer Payal Mohta talks to 68-year-old Sudha Mahalingam, who started traveling solo in her 50s.
It’s not your typical story for a professional Indian woman in her 60s. But after she quit her job in print journalism for a full-time career as an energy economist, travel began to consume Chennai-based Sudha Mahalingam. She now juggles researching, consulting and advising on energy security along with extensive travel and travel writing, and has had her writing published in several Indian publications.
“Around 2003, there were hardly any training grounds for people wanting to pursue energy in India,” says Sudha, who was in her 50s at the time. “Being more or less the only energy expert in the country, my inbox began to flood with invites to international energy conferences.”
During these early years, Sudha found that most
of her travel destinations were dependent on these invites. As a result, she
was always on a shoestring budget and rushed for time. On the flip side, trotting
off to foreign lands (in the pre-Internet era) without hotel bookings while being
dependent on “dog-eared Lonely Planet guides of yesteryear” became the norm for
In fact, it was these early experiences as a solo female traveler which encouraged her to experiment with unplanned travel and begin developing trust in herself. “I like a bit of surprise and flexibility in my travels,” she admits.
One such incident occurred in 2003, when she arrived in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was sunset in the middle of winter and her flight was nearly five hours late—but her destination was the beautiful Lake Issk-Kul, nearly six hours away from the airport.
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Making a “split-second decision”, Sudha decided she couldn’t afford to waste time in her already-short trip and left the safety of the airport to hire the only taxi available on a lonely Russian street—in the middle of a blizzard.
“I was safe through the journey and the driver did not cheat me of money either,” she tells me, recalling the trip. “It reinforced my faith in humanity.”
Places with misleading reputations also attract this adventurer—she has found herself drawn to Iran, time and again. Between 2004 and 2014, Sudha has visited Shiraz, Qom, Persepolis, Isfahan, Tabriz and Yazd, to name a few, attracted by the Islamic and Persian architecture, warm hospitality of the people, and lack of tourists.
“The Islamic Revolution has made it very safe for women to travel in Iran alone,” she says. She also believes being a non-white, Asian, solo, female traveler usually works for her advantage. “People like to see young and fashionably dressed female tourists,” she says. “My age and non-flashy attire renders me invisible—which is great because I escape the crowds and observe things from a distance, at peace.”
Despite preferring to travel solo and in uncrowded destinations, Sudha confesses she does enjoy swapping travel stories over a cold beer with fellow travelers at the hostels she chooses to stay at during her trips—an option she goes for even when she can afford a comfortable hotel.
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“I’ve always felt at home in a young crowd,” she says. “They’re empathetic and never judge you.” In fact, when back home, Sudha prefers to keep her eccentric travels away even from her “conservative” husband of over 40 years.
“He’s a worrier!” She chuckles. “So it’s best he comes to know the details of my trips after I have written about them”. Her two sons, on the other hand, are supportive and even travel with her. In an example of role reversal, they have only one mantra for their adventure-junkie mother: “Stay safe.”