Charukesi Ramadurai - The journey of a free spirit

From travelling as part of her job as a market researcher to travelling as a career journalist, Charukesi’s journey has been an inspiring one.

A freelance journalist and author, Charukesi’s works have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, South China Morning Post, Conde Nast Traveller, to name a few. Her passion for travel has taken her on many adventures and earned her the reputation of being one of India’s top travel bloggers. Read on and get inspired!

1) What was the first place you travelled to that made you fall in love with travelling?

Charukesi: Way back in 1999, I was on a social research project in rural Madhya Pradesh, when I got the chance to visit Orchha and Jhansi over the weekend with a colleague. I had never even heard of Orchha and was struck by the beauty of the temples and the fort. And once our assignment was over, we spent a couple of days in Gwalior before returning to Bombay. That was when I realised there was so much richness everywhere in India, and I would indisputably spend my life discovering it.

2) What was the idea behind Itchy Feet and how has it progressed/grown as a chronicle of your journeys?

C: I started blogging way back in 2003 when it was still a fairly new concept in India. At that time, I was in a corporate job – market research – that took me all over the country, from small villages in the heart of Uttar Pradesh to the temple town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. And I often took time off in the evenings or the weekends to explore the place, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of my own itchy feet at that time.

I used to jot down my thoughts on these travels as part of my first blog (a general view of life called “A time to reflect”, which has been dormant for a couple of years now). Soon after, I progressed to a specialist travel blog (Itchy Feet) as a way to chronicle my journeys.

As it happened, Itchy Feet worked as my calling card and got me my first assignment as a travel writer for a national newspaper.

3) What’s the best part about being a woman traveller? And what’s the worst?

C: There is no particular “best part” of being a woman traveller that I can think of. The tough part is that occasionally it means attracting unwanted attention, whether while alone or in a small group. This is true particularly while travelling within India and in smaller towns and villages. This does not necessarily mean hostility or danger, but the chances of being followed or questioned are much higher.

4) How would you rate travelling solo v/s travelling in a group, and why?

C: Solo travel has a lot going for it. My belief is that travelling alone as a woman has made me stronger and more independent. Travel always throws up the unexpected, and you need to be able to face it and think on your feet. It’s the same whether you are a man or a woman.

I don’t enjoy group travel much, given that it means having to deal with the moods and whims of other people (and I am also a stickler for time, which is a toughie in group travel). But it does have its ups, especially while travelling with a bunch of good friends, where fun and laughter is guaranteed.

5) Tell us about a couple of memorable incidents – the best and/ or worst.

C: I’m always moved by the kindness of strangers when I’m travelling – the Japanese girl in Tokyo who didn’t speak a word of English, but walked with me nearly a kilometer to show me the way late at night; the Portuguese hostess at the restaurant in Porto which was overbooked for the Fado concert, who let us stand near the door for two hours to listen to it free; the Sikkimese guesthouse owner in Gangtok who went out of her way to rustle up a fully vegetarian, local meal for us. I could go on and on.

6) What’s your favourite place amongst all your travels? One that you’d go to again and again? Why?

C: That has to be Italy. It has the perfect blend of everything; food, culture, history, nature, museums, quirky people, shopping, etc.
In India, it is Ladakh. I have been there thrice. And I would go there every year if I could.

7) Tell us about your quirky habit of picking up pickles from every hotel you visit. Are there similar things on your must-do list?

C: There really is no story – I am slightly sheepish, now that I think about it. But I am a spice fiend, and if I like unusual pickles, I end up asking the chef for a bottle to take away. And usually, the hotel is delighted to indulge a guest this way!

8) And now for the tritest question of them all – what does travel mean to you?

C: What it means to me is living my own life through new eyes every time I get out of my home to a new city or country. It means getting out of my comfort zone and pushing my boundaries. It means constantly re-evaluating my understanding of the world and my sense of right and wrong.

9) Any tips/tricks/words of advice to aspiring travellers?

C: In this internet age, the temptation to plan every single detail in advance is overwhelming. Please don’t give in to it. Sure, it is good to be prepared, to know what to expect and to make a list of the must-do and must-see, but also leave scope for spontaneity and serendipity. For that is the real joy of travel.

And finally, don’t get a fear of the unknown stop you – if there is one thing I have discovered in all my years of travel, it is that people are the same everywhere.

10) How do you plan a trip – things you make a note of, do’s, don’ts, itineraries, the process of selecting a place, where to stay, et al? What are your pet travel peeves?

C: Continuing from my response to the last question… I try to travel without a rigid itinerary. I know broadly what I definitely want to do, in terms of the unmissable. But I also keep time and space to enjoy and discover just by walking aimlessly, or by talking to locals and asking for their suggestions. These days, I make use of social media (and not Google/the internet alone) while researching options for a trip.

I have several pet peeves – the biggest of them is this brouhaha about the difference between travellers and tourists. Oh come on, we are all tourists in some way when we travel, nor can we all afford to put our lives on hold and take several weeks and months off to explore a place. So where does this snobbery come from?

11) Let’s talk about the safety factor that comes in when you are a “woman traveller”.

C: When it comes to safety, there is really no guarantee. But mostly it is intuitive – keep your head down, don’t share too much with strangers, dress conservatively in keeping with local customs, respect the culture of the place you are visiting. Even if you are backpacking and don’t like to plan in advance, try to book a hotel for your first night in a new city, especially if you are reaching late in the day. Check in with someone you trust every day or regularly enough, so that that you are always on the radar.

12) You’ve been to 6 continents, when is Antarctica happening?

C: Very soon, I hope. Although I hate the term ‘bucket list’ with all my heart, Antarctica is one of the places I truly want to see in my lifetime. And it is also a destination that is so fragile that it is in danger of being closed off to tourists any time, so yes, as soon as possible.

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