The longest journey in a single country by a woman biker in India.
Early in 2016, 37-year-old Esha Gupta found herself lost in the jungle of Chhattisgarh – a state in central-east India, infested with Maoist insurgency. The forest road, described to her by the soldiers at the army check post she crossed, turned out to be rather invisible.
As Esha searched for assistance, she saw some tribal men in loincloth, carrying bows and arrows. The tribals were startled to see her, a young woman on a motorbike. When she called out to them for help, they ran away. So did most people who she met after that. Esha feels locals are suspicious because of the constant violent conflicts between the Maoist and the army. Even the outsiders can’t distinguish between the Maoists, state informers and common villagers. “And I guess it was not helping that I was wearing camouflage pants.”
Finally, a teenage boy on a bicycle came to her rescue. “He had seen my photo in a local newspaper the previous day, and was so enthusiastic about meeting me, that he cycled non-stop for 25 kilometres to guide me through the forest”, Esha recalls.
The 32,000-kilometre journey
This story is part for the 32,000-kilometre journey Esha made all over India this year: the longest journey in a single country by a woman biker in India. The travel across sixteen states and one Union Territory, which took her 110 days to complete, earned her a place in both the Indian and Asian books of records, as well as several media mentions including that newspaper article in Chhattisgarh.
Esha says that she has been helped, sheltered, fed and entertained by total strangers all over the country. “I strongly believe that people are good”, she said, speaking over the phone from her home town Bengaluru. “Sure, some are bad, but most are good. Yet, when people hear my travel stories such as my experience in Chhattisgarh, they say I must have been lucky. This infuriates me. After all, I had positive experiences in most of the places, why should we not consider it was the goodness of people rather than luck?”
First nationwide bike journey
India’s global image has taken a beating in the recent years. It is considered as an unsafe country especially for women.
This is what prompted Esha to make her first nationwide bike journey in 2014: the Golden Quadrilateral route along the national highways connecting the four major cities of India – Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. She bought her first bike just eight months before that. “It gives me a sense of freedom and empowerment”, she told me when I met her during her stop-over in Delhi at that time, adding a biker’s saying: “Four wheels move a body; two wheels move a soul.”
Esha even quit her hotel management job to travel full time – and has never looked back. With the slogan ‘Fight the Fear’, Esha wants to convey the message that everywhere she went in India, it is safe for a woman to travel solo on a bike. By speaking to media and discussing this with her hosts and local biker communities, she hopes to change the negative image of India a little, especially after the horrifying 2012 Delhi gangrape, which even made international headlines.
“I don’t want to say that we don’t have issues in India, there are major issues. But by watching television and locking the doors, some people forget that we also have a beautiful country out there.” After two years of travelling, Esha is more convinced of this. So much so, that as opposed to her first trip, this time she carried no safety equipment such as pepper spray or GPS device with safety button. While travelling, she is in daily contact with her friend and partner Ankit, who helps her facilitate her travels by finding donors and media partners. She also regularly calls her two sisters, but they are not as worried about her anymore as they were initially. “They are more interested now to hear first-hand from me what is going on in other states. Like when I travelled through Maharashtra this time, and saw the severe drought that was reported in media. I was amazed.”
With her latest trip, that she dubbed the Beautiful India journey, Esha initially hoped for a spot in the Guinness Book Of World Records. Unfortunately, a woman in the United States beat her to it, with a journey more than twice as long as hers. But Esha is okay with it. She says, “The record was not the main goal of travelling.” In fact, she has no desire to break the American record in future. “My main goal is to capture the different cultures of the country. This time I spent an average of twelve hours a day on the road, to cover sixteen different states. So the next time I want to do the opposite and spend more time in one state, more nights in one place and really engage with the local people.”