By Sudha Mathew
In our latest Interviews with Exceptional Travellers, we feature Melissa Arulappan, the kind of person who is envied for her fabulous travel plans. She prefers less explored destinations like Poland and Latvia and interesting modes of travel like her recent family holiday in the UK on a narrow boat. Today she lets us in on why she makes time for solo travel every two years despite a busy life.
Melissa is Senior Director – Corporate Communications at Quintiles, based in Bangalore.
These days, solo travel is quite a buzzword. But you seem to have done it long before the current trend. What was the spark that inspired your first solo trip?
In college, I played basketball and cricket at national level where we traveled by train and bus, sometimes to little towns whose names you may not even have heard of. That was what sparked a love of travel. The actual first solo trip was while still in college, to Meghalaya, a part of India that I wanted to explore. I got off the bus at Shillong early evening in the winter season, not realising that the sun sets much earlier in North East India. It was with a stranger’s help that I got to the house where I was to stay. This positive experience at a young age also contributed to my love for solo travel. My first solo travel to a place where I knew no one was to Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium, after I started working.
How do you choose your solo travel destinations?
I have two conditions to be met for a solo destination. It should not be a place I have been to before and I should know nobody there (not even a friend of a friend!). I like the challenge this offers. Plus it requires me to go in the faith that people are intrinsically good. I must say every solo travel only reinforces my trust in people.
The other requirement is history and a vibrant local culture. I like to experience the local way of life and even choose accommodation like unusual little B&Bs that allow more interaction with the people running it and the people staying there.
A high powered job that requires you to stay connected virtually, a family with two children in school and college – how do you manage time off for solo vacations?
That’s down to a combination of good planning, favourable leave policies in organizations that believes in good work-life balance and a wonderful husband who is an equal partner in the house. I know that my house and the kids will all be fine even when I am not around and there is never any temptation to micro manage the house when I travel!
So far, what has been your favourite solo trip?
It’s hard to choose since all of them have been full of varied and treasured experiences but what comes to mind is Myanmar. I went there in 2010 when it was not yet as open as it is now. Fascinating country! I was in Bagan for my birthday and decided it had to be a memorable one. I booked a horse cart (essentially a tonga) for the day with a person highly recommended in various online reviews and told Min Thu, the horse cart driver that I wanted it to be a special day as it was my birthday. He planned out a wonderful day for me, taking me to some of the lesser known temples that very few tourists go to, ensured I had a delicious local meal in a little village restaurant, took me on a tour of his village and at the end of the day gave me a lovely lacquerware gift and a little handmade itinerary of the day he had worked on each time I stepped off the cart. It was touching and possibly one of the best birthdays that I have had in the last several years. I still keep in touch with Min Thu via an occasional mail.
Tell us a funny/scary memory from a solo trip.
I landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with luggage that went missing. I had just my handbag and a book and toothbrush/toothpaste in my carry-on (not something I usually do but this was just an overnight flight). So here I was in a strange place with no one I knew, no luggage, female and travelling solo. I decided it was not worth worrying about something I wasn’t in control of and after a local call to my insurance agent to find out what I was entitled to, I went ahead with my plans. What started off as slightly scary experience, given that I knew no one, not even the language, turned out to be a new way to experience the place. I realised how little one really needs to survive anywhere and how no attachment to things makes you feel lighter and live in the moment. My luggage finally arrived on the third day.
If your daughter said she was going on a solo trip, what would be the top 3 solo travel tips you’d give her?
1. You must trust the country and its people to enjoy the experience of a solo trip. Fear will ruin the experience. Believe in the implicit good of everyone
2. Planning is doubly important on a solo trip – not detailed planning but enough to know where you are going to stay, places that offer good local cuisine and the local experience.
3. Take a book to read, a notebook to record thoughts and a good camera.