Only the beauty of traditional backless blouses in Gujarat once pushes Chandana Rao to do what she never does while travelling. Shopping.
On this back-packing journey, she has set aside Rs 200 a day for 12 days to explore the state.
But, she does not find the blouses in the cities. “Because they are handmade by women in their homes. Later, while passing through the beautiful villages in a share-auto, I meet an old woman, Sunder Behan, and gesture what I’m looking for. Guess what, she has a new blouse and offers it to me. She declines the money, asks me not to pay for her love in her language and declares it a gift,” gushes Chandana Rao, in Bengaluru.
So, budget travel is for experiences, life lessons and learning skills, vouches the 26-year-old graphic designer who comes from Narayanapura, a village in Kolar — the starting point of her grasp of economy and the imagination to travel.
If during her long bus commutes from Kolar to Bengaluru, she familiarises herself with the art of falling asleep while “sitting and standing”, she also learns to speak with her fellow passengers to expand her knowledge on places and their travel stories.
Her own travel journey doesn’t begin till 2016, after an internship and after coming away from a shiny corporate job in Whitefield, the only journey that, she says, stifled her every single day. “I’ve come to believe that travel is not my passion. It’s a need. I believe people, like animals, are made for movement, to explore and understand the world,” she shares.
Last year, she traversed Tamil Nadu’s East Coast and visited its heritage sites under Rs 1,900 for over eight days!
“I had to take up this trip as a friend tried to convince me that I spend little because I travel with my boyfriend or friends, and another backpacker believed that South India was not safe for women solo travellers. It was a jab at my ego,” she remembers.
The grating words send her on a Chennai-bound train. For a couple of 100 rupees, she reaches the Chennai Railway Station waiting room. As it’s also an unplanned trip, places within Chennai are hers to choose, and social media arrives as help.
“I ask my Facebook friends in the area for places to visit and find a host, Rekha, another backpacker and cyclist. She picks me up from the station and lets me stay at her home. We go around the city, to festivals, and eat local food, realise we are the similar kind of crazy…and she suggests the next place.” Puducherry, in there, Auroville.
Local transportation is a boon for budget travel. “From Chennai to Puducherry, it’s hardly Rs 80.” And short-distance hitch-hiking comes in handy, so that’s how she reaches Auroville. For a roof over the head here, there are easy-on-the-pocket backpackers’ hostels. But if you think like Chandana, think of a barter.
“I did play up my marketing skills I learned in Bengaluru as an intern to find bunk-mates to halve my rent. I strike a deal with the owner — two lodgers for his hostel in turn for a room. As I look around Auroville’s dome on a moped for hire, maybe Rs 60/day, I meet strangers who, like me, are looking for places to stay. The owner is so happy that one of them, an RJ, wants to stay on for two months,” she says.
Tamil Nadu is temple-rich in Tiruchi, Madurai, Srirangam, Kumbakonam and Rameshwaram etc, and their ample spaces double up as places of accommodation. So, Chandana’s love for temples feeds not only her thirst for looking at architecture but also her stomach. “I eat prasada and have stayed in the complexes; they are clean and safe,” she says.
If you budget in safety, it’s called “having the right attitude,” she says. According to Chandana, “If you land in someone’s village, smile at them; break the ice if they stare — know you are the alien with a backpack; ask for directions or places to visit; try to speak in their language, and be genuine. With a positive conversation, things turn around for the best.”
She illustrates, “On the bus to Rameshwaram one early morning, I’m the only girl, and there are six local guys. We are aware but keep to ourselves. And as we hit the road to the temple, their questions begin. But the street dogs are scarier. When they see this, they make sure we are on the same side, and away from the dogs. And we get talking within my comfort zone. They later even pacify a group of young bikers who have taken notice of me.”
This memory co-exists with the landscape of two oceans — The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean — meeting there, and of the ghost town Dhanushkodi, which she labels as “the best part of the trip.” “I think I spent most of the money only on food and commute,” she says.
For a budget traveller, the fun is in inventing ways through journeys to make them memorable.
“It could be by pitching tents, like we did on Kalo Dungar, the highest point in Gujarat, and in front of dhabas, with
their permission, of course, or climbing on to the back of the truck to “pass through the most picturesque villages in all of Gujarat” and “meet the kindest truck driver ever.”
And if ‘happily ever after’s are to be believed, know that Chandan Rao even met her husband while on her first budget travel to Hampi.
For tips on solo/budget travels and information on unexplored places, contact Chandana Rao on 9663167126.