In 2016, Chennai-based Geetha, along with her three college friends, went to Goa. “I had always wanted to dance,” Geetha says shyly. “We went to the beach, had a couple of drinks and danced. And I always wanted to swim too! So, in the resort, I wore a swimsuit, and we swam in the pool there. Because I was with my friends and they did too, I felt comfortable enough to do it.”
As Geetha narrates this, it is difficult to believe that she is a woman of 62 years. Her voice lights up with excitement when she talks about traveling with her college friends to a number of places – the UK, Ireland, Goa and planning an upcoming trip to Mathura, Agra and Sariska Tiger Reserve. “I feel like I am back in college, that I am 22 again,” she laughs.
When you think about an Indian woman in her sixties, chances are that you will think of a warm grandmother-like figure, living in the comfort of her home, surrounded by grandchildren. It is quite unlikely that you would imagine this woman traveling the world with her friends or strangers, taking up challenging treks or adventure sports.
However, some senior women are proving that age is just a number.
Take Bengaluru-based Pushpa Jacob for example. The 67-year-old has been to the US, UK, China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Tahiti and several European countries, apart from touring places in India itself. She recently returned from a trip to Kenya.
“The traveling bug bit me when my husband and I were in the Middle East till 1997. Both of us would travel back then,” she reminisces. And though he passed away in 2002, Pushpa does not prefer a life of domesticity alone. “I am blessed with very supportive family and friends. In fact, they are surprised whenever I am in the city. They ask me if I am here for a week or a month, and where I am planning to go next,” Pushpa says.
Pushpa with her travel companions at the Great Wall of China
It all began for her a little over a decade ago. She had always wanted to go to Israel. And since Pushpa took that trip, there has been no looking back. She prefers traveling in groups or with her friends, age no bar. Her best trips so far are to Japan – not because her son is settled there, but because the country has a rejuvenating and calming effect on her. “I love having their rice wine,” she chirps.
One difference Pushpa does feel traveling with groups and family is the lack of flexibility. “In a group, if the majority does not want to do something, it gets dropped,” she observes.
That being said, Pushpa considers herself an adaptable person. She has had her share of adventure as well. For instance, she cycled 10 kilometres after 40 years when she was in Okinawa, visiting her son. “I also did paragliding about four years ago in Japan all by myself. My son was busy, I just booked a session… My trainer did not know English; he was gliding along with me, but I did it! I was quite proud of myself too,” Pushpa says.
Pushpa in paragliding gear
She fondly recalls when she undertook the extremely challenging trek to ‘Tiger’s Nest’ or Paro Taktsang, a sacred Buddhist site in Bhutan, when she was around 61. “It was a total of 700 steps up and down. There is no smooth road or path. It’s steep, littered with stones and roots,” Pushpa narrates. Though she had gone there with a few others, ultimately, it was only her and another woman, Susan Verghese, who decided to do the trek.
“I thought I would die on that mountain,” Pushpa recalls. “I felt so out of breath! I could not walk over five steps before needing to stop. I thought my poor son would have to come here and take my body… I know, very dramatic!” she laughs. “But Susan, who’s 10 years older to me, was completely fine! I was just holding on to her,” she adds.
Pushpa at Paro Taktsang
Susan (R) and Pushpa (L) with their certificates for completing the Tiger's Nest trek
At 78, Susan has an impressive list of places she has travelled to within and outside India. She travelled initially with her husband, an army man, after he retired in 1988. “We would do one trip within India every year and one trip abroad every alternate year,” she shares. Her passion for travel continued after he passed away in 2004.
Susan is thankful that she remains in good health, which allows her to continue traveling extensively. One of the advantages of traveling as a senior, she says, is that you no longer want to give in to peer pressure. “You do what you can and without shame. When we went to Bhutan, only Pushpa and I did the Tiger’s Nest trek. Though I am a walker, I would usually pass on treks. You learn to gauge yourself better with age,” she says.
Susan also notes that being senior does not mean that you don’t have a sense of adventure – though your idea of adventure may change. “Some people like history and art, others like being close to nature… some like trekking, and some like adventure sports,” she explains. “For me, every trip is an adventure in itself. On our Armenia and Russia tour, from which we returned this April, going to Russia’s picture-perfect churches and climbing uphill to see the monasteries in Armenia were both different kinds of adventures in themselves.”
Susan in Armenia
Susan at St Petersburg, Russia
For all the risks and chances she is willing to take, Susan is particular about traveling with at least one person she knows. “I am 78 after all. If something happens, I would prefer it if someone I knew were there to help,” she says.
Many times, her travel companion is her daughter who is based in Delhi. It’s what Susan prefers too. “With family, you can laze, relax or take the trip at your own pace. There isn’t a schedule. Sometimes my daughter and I just find a café and sit there having coffee,” Susan shares.
But for Geetha, things worked out differently. She did travel with her husband and family before he passed away in 2008. And though she enjoyed sightseeing and following the itinerary to cover all the important spots, it was while traveling with her friends that she found how liberating it was to not have a schedule.
In 2013, she took a trip to the UK along with another friend from Chennai. There were visiting a college mate there, and were joined by another friend from Malaysia. They also travelled to Ireland. “I finally had no responsibilities. My children were married and settled. There was nothing holding me back. It was the same for my friends,” Geetha says. “I could do what I wanted on these trips… We went to watch the Lion King musical in London. Perhaps my husband would not have preferred that; he would have preferred sightseeing.”
Geetha (extreme right) with some friends on a trip to Wayanad
They ended up trying different types of food and cuisines too – it was a trip like never before. “I had been used to planned trips before. But this – I was with friends and our focus was to have a good time. We just hung out,” Geetha says happily.
Even when Geetha went to Goa with the same set of friends, she found herself just being happy to experience travel with them. “Sure, we didn’t stay out too late. But just sitting in the room and having a drink was fun,” she says.
While traveling as a senior is new to Geetha, for Rajalakshmi, Geetha’s friend in Chennai who went to the UK and Goa with her, it is almost second nature.
Rajalakshmi, a consultant, has been traveling since 1999, when she took her first trip to Israel. Since then, she has toured all the South East Asian countries, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and several places in India as well. Having experienced travel when she was young as well as a senior, she believes that women must not wait till they are older to travel on their own terms.
Rajalakshmi (left) in Egypt
“Your body may not be able to many things as it ages… long walks, adventure sports. Especially if you have had children, your body goes through serious wear and tear,” says the 62-year-old, who did not marry and doesn’t have children. “Sometimes people ask me if my husband or my family manage well without me when I travel. When I tell them I am single, I see the curiosity in their eyes,” she says mirthfully.
Her favourite trip so far has been to South America with her sister. “We went to the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina and also to Machu Pichu. I loved being so close to nature. That’s why I loved the Amazon forest so much too,” she says. Another particular memorable moment from her travels is walking on the floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1999.
Rajalakshmi (right) in Machu Pichu
Rajalakshmi (left) Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina
Apart from patience, travel has taught Rajalakshmi an important lesson. “We go looking for beautiful landscapes far and wide. Go to Kashmir, and the northeast, you will find landscapes that match Switzerland and more,” she gushes.
While the women do wish that more Indian cities and airports, were more senior friendly, it is but a small blip in their ambitious travel plans. Rajalakshmi plans to increase the frequency of her trips to three a year now. Though Geetha says she is not an extrovert, she wants to join travel groups so that she can continue to explore places even if her college friends cannot accompany her. And despite how widely travelled she is, Susan intends to see Australia and South Africa too.