Daredevils & dirt tracks

From roads to rivers, there are many frontiers that the adventure-loving
‘Funjabis’ are crossing and conquering, writes Mehak Uppal

WHAT comes to mind when you think of typical Punjabis? High on spirit, physically fit, rough and tough, risk takers, go-getters, and so on. In keeping with this popular perception, it made sense to explore what adventure action the fun-loving Punjabis are up to this season. And, needless to say, we were not left disappointed.

Rallyist Jagmeet Gill feels that sponsors for adventure activities are hard to come by
Rallyist Jagmeet Gill feels that sponsors for adventure activities are hard to come by

Part of one of the first all-women car rallying teams, Shuchi Thakur with her navigator Molona Wati Longchar
Part of one of the first all-women car rallying teams, Shuchi Thakur (R) with her navigator Molona Wati Longchar

A quest to explore and the high they get from the sudden rush of adrenalin clearly has many of them ready to conquer the rough and rocky. Simply put, the ‘Funjabis’ are living it up and that, too, in full style.

An interesting example of ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ is that of the Chandigarh Adventure Association, which was founded way back in 1989 to pursue motor sports. Kulbir Singh Gaba, president of the 500-member club, started the journey when people did not even know the basics of it all and has now travelled to international destinations. "I am very glad that from a humble beginning, our outfit is now slowly going global. We went to Thailand last December and next on our itinerary is China. We also indulge in water sports and other such activities."

In fact, realising the great potential that has largely been left unexplored, Rahul Soni has gone one step forward and imported ATVs (All-Terrain Vehicles) and dirt bikes to start an adventure company named Xtremeways. He has introduced his mean machines on a luxury farm tourism resort, near Hoshiarpur, named Citrus County. "The response has been very encouraging. The guests are enjoying this big time and it has only made us hopeful that more people will use our services in future." Rahul provides the machines on rent and takes care of the entire process, from their transportation to setting up the area for their use. Knowing the Punjabi’s love for grandeur, we won’t be surprised if we were to spot them at one of the farmhouse weddings very soon.

All said and done, what about the risk factor involved in following this passion for adventure? "We take all precautions possible and strictly follow the safety guidelines. In India, people tend to overlook a basic requirement like wearing helmets. For this very reason, we have not made available dirt bikes to the public and they are only at the disposal of our trained staff," says Soni with a sudden change in tone, indicating the gravity with which he treats the matter.

Gaba, on his part, opines that with proper safety measures in place, it is safer to pursue adventure sports than to travel on road. "It’s all in the mind ji," he adds with a laugh.

Considering the physical stamina involved, one would think that it must be one of those male- dominated areas. Think again. Women from the region are equally, if not more, participative in all the thrill and action, that, too, without a reserved quota. Soni quips, "I think Punjabi women are much better than men because they listen to the safety instructions carefully and then follow them diligently. So, women are not just doing it but doing it the perfect way."

Man or woman, one needs funds to indulge in it seriously and consistently. So, how do people rake in the moolah to pursue all this action? Apparently, it’s not all about fun and enjoyment, as there is not much support coming forth in India, as sponsors are hard to find. Even Reena Kaushal Dharmashakthu, India’s first lady to go to the South Pole last year to mark the Commonwealth’s 60th anniversary, had to take a loan from a bank and borrow from the friends.

Shares Jagmeet Gill, a car rallyist who has been pumping in money at his own level just to do what his heart says, "Parental support along with money from my own pocket has kept me going. I might find some sponsors now, as I move into the professional category, but so far, it was pretty tough to sustain oneself. Also, I can never think of taking it up full time as a profession for the same reason."

It was all the more tough for Soni, who imported the SUVs only to realise that the land rates had sky-rocketed, making it impossible to buy the large piece of land required for his kind of venture. "It’s not just about the land; we keep facing new kinds of roadblocks in our unconventional work. For example, we used to transport our machines on a Maruti Gypsy till date, but the vehicle has now gone out of production, so we are now looking for an alternative!"

In spite of the hardships, it is heartening to see city people not just finding a way to enjoy these challenges, but even winning accolades. Gaba and his team have made it to the Limca Book of World Records by being the largest team (87 members) to have reached Khardung-la, the highest motorable pass of the world situated in Ladakh, for three consecutive years (2001-03).

Jagmeet has also done the city proud by coming second in Desert Storm 2009 and third in Desert Storm 2010, both in the Ndure category.

Seems if we have our heart set on something, the mind surely finds the way and we end up giving it our best. This is the reason that from trekking to rock climbing to paragliding, to rafting and paint balling, you name it and these Punjabis have done it. The adrenaline rush is clearly the new in-thing and who cares if there are no funds, sponsors or technical support. After all, it is the spirit that matters and that these daredevils have in abundance.

Babes in the woods

AS in all other fields, women seem to be breaking all barriers as well as stereotypes as they foray into adventure, a field that is conventionally dominated by men. They are not just gaining an entry but competing professionally, with spirit and enthusiasm, to emerge as role models and inspire others.

Rappelling to rafting, women like Supreet are doing it all
Rappelling to rafting, women like Supreet are doing it all

women bikers take part in an Xtremeways expedition
Women bikers take part in an Xtremeways expedition

camp instructor and guide from Manali Krishna Thakur
Camp instructor and guide from Manali Krishna Thakur

‘A paraplegic woman on Mission Ability – beyond disability’ is how Deepa Malik describes herself. Paralytic below chest since the past 10 years, she is a biker, car rallyist, swimmer, javelin thrower, Limca record holder and is going to represent the country in the Commonwealth Games later this year! This amazing woman is breaking all clich`E9s that are associated with a differently abled person, as she proves that the perspective of the so-called ‘normal’ people towards her is totally twisted. "I was big time bugged by the way the world around treated me, as if I was an object of pity. So, I decided to show people that I was capable of not just going about my normal routine, but doing so much more!" she says as confidence fills her voice.

This MTV ‘True Roadie in mind and soul’ has an endless list of awards to show off. Deepa holds a Limca Book record for swimming across the Yamuna for 1 km in spite of a disability level classified as under S-1 in India. "I have conquered the water, desert and the mountains. I wish to conquer the air now," dreams the woman, who has set no limits for herself. "I also want to be an example that other differently abled people can cite when they go out to get the jobs. If I can achieve all this, then certainly working sitting on a chair the entire day is no big deal. I hope this breaks the prejudice recruiters show towards the deserving but disabled candidates."

Half the age of Deepa is Alisha Abdullah, the first woman biker of India! This 20-year-old has to compete with men in all the events, as she is the lone woman rider in the country. And well, as expected, she not just competes, but even wins them. A woman of a few words, she probably lets her 600 cc bike do all the talking. "I have never felt out of place, for this is my passion and I am totally comfortable pursuing it. I have my eyes set on the Malaysian Super series to be held this summer." 

Ask her about her long-term plans and she says, "I want to pursue this for as long as possible and then become a trainer. I hope to be a role model for the kids." Even though she is a ‘girl just out of her college’, it doesn’t really seem like a far-fetched dream.

When sports and bike racing are there, can car rallying be far behind. Meet Shuchi Thakur, the 29-nine-year old who believes in making her jeep talk to the air, as she believes in competing in the Xtreme category.

Part of one of the first all-women car rallying team, Shuchi began by racing her Maruti 800 in a rally and then quickly graduated to a jeep. "I take part in all the major rallies that take part our side," she says as we wonder how does she perfect the act of juggling her job in an advertising agency in Delhi and taming the rocky terrains. "I have an understanding with my employers. For car rallies, chhutti is no problem", she adds with a zing in her voice.

And what about all the dangers and safety issues lurking around the next bend of road? "The only scare any racer has is the fear of not completing the rally. Everything else is just secondary." 

(Clockwise from R) Twenty-year-old biker Alisha Abdullah has set her sights on the Malaysian Super series to be
Twenty-year-old biker Alisha Abdullah has set her sights on the Malaysian Super series to be held this summer

And she adds with a casualness in her tone, "I have toppled my car a couple of times and even banged it once while negotiating a curve in a hilly region. The only thought that came to mind was that this should not hamper the completion of my rally. Everything else is just secondary."

There are many who are even taking up adventure as a full-time profession. Krishna Thakur, a 29-year- old camp instructor and guide from Manali, has been doing this for as long as she can remember. She did the requisite courses from a government institute in the region and went on to compete in the national level winter-skiing competitions.

"If you are the right kind of person with the right kind of confidence, I think being a girl will not be a barrier to pursue any kind of profession. I was clear from the very beginning that I wanted to do this and this ensured that I got the family support, too."

There are others who indulge in it just by chance, with only the fun factor in mind. Nisha Thamman from Morinda, who discovered the thrill of adventure sports on a college trip to Darjeeling, believes, "I don’t see this as a man or woman thing. It is plain fun and enjoyment that anyone can indulge in. I have treated myself to river rafting and rock rappelling and totally enjoyed it. As far as parental backing is concerned, we were away from home, so they really couldn’t have done much."

These tales of grit and sheer determination show what it means when people say, "Impossible itself says I’m possible!" — MU

Sumitra Senapaty

Gobally, women travellers are forming the highest growth segment in the travel industry. They are no longer simply a part of pilgrimage or ‘kitty’ outings. Trends suggest that they are no longer even tied to their families when it comes to travel plans. A growing number of women are travelling as business executives, as part of holiday groups, or even on their own.

Girls just wanna have fun and they can go places with a club that organises all-women trips
Girls just wanna have fun and they can go places with a club that organises all-women trips Photo by the writer

A 2005 report by Singapore-based Mastercards International is illustrative here. Based on a survey of 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific region (including India), the report shows that the ratio of male to female travellers has catapulted from a 90:10 ratio 30 years ago to a 60:40 level currently.

Although travelling for pleasure remains a privileged activity for women, the very fact that this trend exists is illustrative of the changing mindsets. On a macro level, changing lifestyles are the main drivers of the ‘all-women’ category. Worldwide, women are delaying marriage, or choosing not to marry at all, and living independent lives. There is, therefore, a growing need to match the attitudes of this diverse, but growing, group of independent women with their expectations of leisure and recreation.

The woman traveller phenomenon is the inspiration behind Women on Wanderlust (WOW), a travel club that organises all-women trips to a range of destinations. When I started WOW in the summer of 2005, I wanted to meet other women who shared my passion for travel, and assist them to achieve their wish lists.

An all-women travel group is the perfect solution for women who want to travel, but do not like the idea of travelling alone. The Indian travel industry, for one, is not geared to dealing with women travellers. Women, though, know how to work around problems. I find that safety in numbers is a good maxim. This happily dispenses with the need for a male escort. But whether in India or elsewhere, strolling alone after dark or through lonely streets is inadvisable. A number of women that I have travelled with tell me that India is far from ready for the solo woman traveller. Women are asked peculiar questions: Are you married; Why are you travelling alone; Where’s your husband ....?

Another precaution that I take with WOW is to rely only on travel providers who have a reputation to protect. This also ensures that we are not overcharged simply because the company is dealing with a woman. And if a particular agent is less than professional, woman power works! Last summer, the package provider in Leh was reluctant to provide transfers for shopping at the Tibetan market.

But when the women got together and insisted, he capitulated and agreed to do the needful.

I am often asked what type of women travel with WOW. My response always is that there is no definite profile. But, on the whole, these women are typically urban —- they like to travel, want trips designed around their needs, like good food and fine accommodation, enjoy flexibility in the travel schedule, and do not want to be part of a large group. WOW has quite a mix of married, single, divorced and widowed women on most trips, the average ages ranging from 27 to 65. But that said, age is not the determinant factor, the urge to travel is.

And what do women want? Is it possible to generalise? Not really. But women tend to be more detail-oriented. Are the sheets clean and fresh? Does the resort live up to promises made on the website? We also expect more —- we notice the bath amenities, exercise options, upholstery, and whether there are healthy and interesting food options.

Today, as disposable incomes have increased, particularly amongst urban women, so have confidence levels. Women long for adventure, a complete holiday with more-than-the-usual shopping and sightseeing. "For women, travel is all about adventure and learning. Women want both a physical and a spiritual journey," says Jaspreet Allagh, a Delhi-based training manager. What fits the bill? Experiencing Egypt through the Nile cruise, an all-female rafting expedition on the Zanskar River in Ladakh, a self-drive vacation in New Zealand or a wellness retreat in Kerala. "After the day’s activities are over, I look forward to a delicious meal and a comfortable bed," says Allagh. "You have to balance adventure with comfort."

Often, when women travel together, they realise that they have been missing out on ‘girl time’ —- the time to share strengths, and provide sanity and support to other women. Many fellow travellers with WOW speak of it being a liberating experience because of the freedom to choose their own destination and activities without having to compromise with family members who might want to do something else.

I remember the reaction of a young mother and her six-year-old daughter during the Ladakh tour. They had never sat in an aeroplane before, never seen snow, never really taken a break. For them, the trip was more than sightseeing or adventure. The young woman believed that the trip provided her with the reassurance that she can do things on her own. She felt both energised and empowered. — WFS