After travelling across India in 30 days, three expatriate women from the UAE have returned with memories to last a lifetime. Dubai resident Dr Sumera Syed and her aunt Lathifa Banu joined their friend, Rejila Hassan, in India to embark on an incredible journey that spanned nine states and three Union territories.
The three women, of which two are grandmothers, completed the journey from Kerala to Kashmir to Leh on their Toyota SUV vehicle in 30 days. Ajman-based dentist Dr Sumera said they were able to witness incredible sights, including the Khardungla Pass - the highest motorable pass in the world and overcome deep-rooted fears.
“We had a lot of misconceptions and fears about the journey across India. We were apprehensive for our safety as hijabi women due to reports of intolerance,” said Dr Sumera.
“We were worried whether we would be discriminated against or mistreated. However, throughout the trip, we got nothing but love and friendship. There are many women who we met and became friends with during the journey.”
How was the trip planned?
Dr Sumera, Lathifa and Rejila Hassan started talking about the trip across India early this year. Despite having dreamt of a journey across North India for many years with their families, it wasn’t until Lathifa connected with her former classmate Rejila that the idea began to take shape.
“When my aunt discussed this idea of driving to Kashmir, I was dismissive because neither of us had ever driven in India,” said Dr Sumera.
“The thought of driving in India gave me anxiety.”
That didn’t stop them from forming a WhatsApp group in early February to discuss possible routes and journey options. The entire trip would take around 45 days. A mother to two, Dr Sumera was still sceptical. However, when a medical emergency forced her to accompany her college-going son to physiotherapy in Kerala, she took the chance to brush up on her driving skills. “This was a big boost of confidence for us,” she said.
“At least, we would be two drivers.”
By early June, Lathifa Banu was determined to ensure that the trip went ahead and booked the tickets. She only got 30 days of annual leave, so the trio had to modify their journey to fit that time. “Although she is my aunt, she is only 10 years older than me,” said Dr Sumera.
“We have been close to each other throughout our lives and had an excellent rapport with Rejila. I realised I would never get such a good chance to travel again.”
Setting off on the journey
On June 20, Lathifa and Dr Sumera took a night flight to Calicut, where Rejila stays. The next day, the trio set off. A relative had designed a logo and a banner for them that they stuck on their car. “To be honest, I was worried that we would be attracting too much attention to ourselves with the banner,” said Dr Sumera.
“However, it was a big icebreaker. At checkpoints, police officers would chat about the trip and encourage us not to quit. They would let us cut queues and be on our way so as not to delay our trip.”
“On the first day, our target destination was Udupi,” said Lathifa.
“We were unsure whether we would get there, so we didn’t book accommodation. Our families had given us strict orders not to travel after 7pm. So we thought we would stay wherever we were.”
The women were pleasantly surprised when they reached Udupi on time. “That is the first time we got some confidence that we may be able to pull this off,” said Dr Sumera.
“From the next day, we started to get more organised. When one of us drove, the other would book the stay at our destination. We would book two or three rooms at each destination. If we reached a place and felt uneasy, we would go to the next stay. Fortunately, there were just one or two times when we had to do that.”
One of the most memorable incidents was during their drive through a small village in Gujarat. “My aunt saw a tractor on a farm and wanted to drive it,” laughed Dr Sumera. “I tried to dissuade her, but she was adamant. It turns out that a woman at the farm was growing okra (ladyfingers). She was all too ready to let her drive. Not just that, she cooked a meal of sauteed okra and dal and fed us before letting us go on our way.”
The women, however, hit a snag in Rajasthan due to some tension. “Just as we were about to arrive, a curfew was announced, and Wifi was restricted,” said Lathifa.
“So, we decided to reroute through Delhi instead.”
Eventually, when the women reached Kashmir, they were pleasantly surprised when they were stopped by soldiers and asked for selfies. “There were a lot of soldiers from Kerala,” said Lathifa. “When they saw our car registration, they would stop, chat with us, and ask to take photos. I think we reminded them of home in some way.”
From there, they headed to Leh, where they travelled on the Khardungla Pass before heading to the airport to return to the UAE. “We both needed to rejoin work,” said Dr Sumera.
“Rejila’s family arrived in Leh to drive her back to Kerala.”
The women admitted that their most significant support came from their families. “Although my husband and uncle were initially sceptical, once we began, they gave us 100 per cent support,” said Dr Sumera.
The women have been constantly in touch over WhatsApp with several others they met during the way. “Several women we met in villages wished they could go on a trip like this,” said Lathifa.
“We weren’t able to take them with us, but we hope we could be role models for them. Now, we are busy planning our next trip together.”
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