Say hello to Ritu J Goyal Harish who translated her love for travel into a full-time profession by starting Ease India Travel, a Pune-based startup that offers personalised holidays to select destinations. She is a mother of two, a loving wife, a doting daughter, a journalist, a professor, an activist and a solo traveller who has become a huge source of inspiration for women from different walks of life. She talks to us about her journey, solo travel experiences and more. By Priyanka Chakrabarti
1. From being a journalist to a professor, and finally a travel entrepreneur… tell us about your journey so far.
And, it has been a pretty long journey.
It was after I completed my undergrad from Delhi University and moving to Vishakhapatnam (Vizag) as a fauji wife (my husband was in the Indian Navy) that I discovered my penchant for activism and writing. This was the mid 90s. I used to write ‘Letters to the Editor’ to the Indian Express, a newspaper I had grown up reading. Imagine my surprise when one day I got a letter from them asking me if I would be willing to work at the paper. I tried my hand at it, but not knowing the local language was a huge handicap. I also realised that it wasn’t enough to just have good skills in English, I also needed to know more about the media, how it works, etc.
I signed up for a PG course in Journalism and Mass Communication from Andhra University, where in my first year, I got a Gold Medal for my academic performance. Meanwhile, I was learning the local language and today I can speak fairly good Telugu. I’d really thought I’d make a career in the field in Vizag. But things changed when I got pregnant with my first child, and soon after her birth, we got our transfer orders. We were going to Delhi.
The next four years are a blur. By the time I got a hang of how to handle the baby and readjust to life in Delhi, two years had passed. I started looking for jobs. But things were tough. At one interview, (with a famous parenting magazine), I was being manipulated to accept that working a full-time job with a baby would be “impossible” (even though I mentioned that I have a full-time caretaker for my baby). After 2-3 such interviews, I gave up. I began freelancing.
I worked with several magazines and also began writing promotional and other material for a NGO called Akhil Bhartiya Grahak Parishad that worked to teach consumers about the duties and rights. The experience gave me a good respite, and also channeled my inner activist.
In 2003, my second born came along, and in 2004, an opportunity to work as the member of a consumer court bench (I got this opportunity through the NGO mentioned above) for electricity grievances. For two years, I gave “judgments” and “orders” in accordance with the Electricity Act and it was a high like no other. This channeled and fuelled my inner activist like how!
By 2006, it was time for us to move again and we moved to Pune. By this time, my husband had quit the Navy and we were settling into our lives as ‘civilians’. This is when I started working as a freelance reporter. I started with Times of India and moved to DNA, Pune edition. I did some of my best work with the DNA under the mentoring of Resident Editor, Abhay Vaidya, one of the finest journalists I have had the honour to work with.
Around this time, I also got invited to teach at media colleges in Pune. I taught several subjects at Symbiosis and Indira School of Media as a guest faculty and even held the position of Adjunct Faculty at Symbioisis International University under the former chief editor of Times of India, the late Dr. Dileep Padgaonkar for one year. I learned a lot from him.
After 10 years of churning local stories, some investigative and groundbreaking, I started feeling a bit redundant and unchallenged. DNA Pune eventually shut down and I was floating. Writing was my calling but I was also not prepared to do mediocre work.
By 2016 mid, I decided that it was time to move on. In January 2017, I started Ease India Travel.
When did the travel bug bite you?
It would be such a cliché to say that I’ve been a traveller since I was a child, but it is true and I have only my parents to blame for it.
My parents were avid road-trippers and in the 70s and 80s India, we’d take off in our Fiat Padmini for unplanned trips across South India. I was born and raised in Kerala and my parents wouldn’t forego a single opportunity to pop the three kids in the car and take off. I’ve spent many a weekends with my parents and 2 brothers, driving across Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, eating at shanties, staying at tiny lodges and experiencing bizarre adventures such as the car breaking down in torrential rains, and etc. My childhood is a treasure trove of innumerable such stories.
Even before my children were born, I’d coax the husband into travelling, and we’ve toured the North East and parts of Gujarat extensively.
Instinctively, I am a backpacker – I love roughing it out and I love travelling unplanned, which wasn’t possible with the children. (My parents did it and I laud their courage!) And so, travelling took a backseat for many years.
In 2011 some time, I decided to start travelling again, solo. And there was no looking back.
Do you remember your first solo holiday?
Very vividly! My husband had to move to UAE on an assignment in 2011 and I was in Pune with the children. The hands-on father that he was, the children (aged 11 and 7) were in utter misery in the months right after his departure and consequently, I was miserable too. It was very tough to put up with the tears and sobs every night at bedtime, when they would miss him the most.
When it was time for him to come to India on his first long break, I told him that I needed a break too. All he told me is, “Go someplace safe,” and on a lark, I chose Bhutan.
I went as a backpacker for 10 days and came back a changed person. Bhutan is like that – it changes something inside you, irrevocably. I’ve heard this from all my guests.
What is your favourite holiday destination in India?
India is so vast, so diverse and so beautiful that it is impossible to say that I like this one place the most. I love Kerala because its home. But I also love the mountains and Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, in particular. I am also discovering my love for all things rural and tribal (the more unknown, the better) and have fallen completely in love with Bastar district in Chhattisgarh! I want to re-discover the North East again and cannot wait to go back.
Tell us about your solo travel experiences.
Travelling solo was a revelation! There is so much one learns about oneself when travelling solo – such as how to handle yourself in tricky situations, how to be safe on the road, and etc. It also teaches you how to keep away from unsavoury elements, you just get a better sense of body language, the gaze, and etc. I am a sort of a creep magnet and I’ve had to learn to be firm in my responses to such people.
One of the most important aspects of solo travelling is being mindful and following your gut feeling. I deliberately avoid taking late night transportation, for example. When I travelled from Raipur to Jagdalpur recently, I took a bus at 10:30 PM, which is not too late. Or so I thought. But when I stepped out of my hotel at 9:30 PM, I realised that the city was nearly dead and it was difficult to get a rickshaw to the bus stand. Even though the bus stand was just 10-minutes away, I left before 10:00 PM because I just thought I should. I am glad I did.
With Google Maps and Uber/Ola travelling has become a lot easier than it was even two years ago. I always try to save the map of the place I am visiting offline so I am not at the mercy of the network in the area.
Do you think we should encourage more Indian women to travel solo in the country?
I do think women must take to solo travelling, though, I will caution, that travelling solo is not for the faint hearted. While it has its perks, as women, we need to be extra careful when we travel solo. It is fine to talk of equality and equal opportunities, but one must be pragmatic and the reality is that no country in the world is 100% safe for travellers, more so, women travelling solo. As long as we adopt basic safety measures, solo travelling is very enriching and invigorating.
I always tell women who ask me how to go about it – start with your comfort zone. Take a weekend off and travel to a place closer to home just to gain confidence. Even thinking on one’s feet if a train or flight you’ve booked has got cancelled is a good skill that will help when you take off for bigger adventures!
I have encouraged my 19 year old to travel solo as well. So far she has taken backpacking trips with her girl gang, and I hope, someday, she will travel solo too.
When did you realise you wanted to become a travel -entrepreneur? Was there any particular trip or incident that was consequential in your decision-making process?
In 2012, after my first solo trip to Bhutan, I came home and started a travel blog. After much deliberation, I decided to call it Ease India Travel. The idea was to offer a lot of information to my readers, share my personal experiences and tons of photographs that would enable them to plan their own trips, without trouble. In short, I wanted to make travel ‘easy’. And by the time it was 2016, my travel blog was getting a lot of attention. People were getting in touch with me to plan their holidays, and happy as I was to help them, I could not give them hotel bookings, etc. unless I commercialised my operations.
When I was at the crossroads in the same year, feeling bored with journalism, I was still not ready to let it go. Because writing is all I had done for over 20 years, and it is the only thing I knew how to do well. I had no experience of running a business (even though I come from a family of businessmen), and I didn’t have deep pockets.
But I told myself: “I have one life to do what I want and, if I don’t do it now, then when?”
The other thoughts that ran amok in my head – I am growing older, so now is the time. I love travelling, I want to help others travel, and I want to share the joy of travelling. Why don’t I help them, and in the process create something valuable?
On a 5-day trek in Bhutan in September 2016, I decided that I would do this – become an entrepreneur with all my savings, open an office and set the ball rolling. I decided to call my company Ease India Travel, because even though we are a commercial set up now, the intent and aim remains the same – to make travel easy, happy and fun for all.
Tell us about Ease India Travel.
Ease India Travel is a Pune-based startup that is currently bootstrapped and self-funded. We offer highly customised and personalised holidays to select destinations.
The guest is at the centre of everything we do. We create holidays after understanding the holiday needs and goals of our guests, understanding each and every nuance of the way they like their holidays and understanding the dynamics of the groups especially when there are travellers of diverse ages. Since all itineraries are based on my own travel experiences, these include activities that you will seldom find on the internet.
We are highly flexible – in the way we plan holidays as also the itineraries. And we cater to a large segment of people with special needs such as senior citizens and those who have to ‘slow travel’ (where itineraries don’t need them to rush from one point to another).
We realise the value of a holiday for a busy professional – who works hard all year round to take one or two good family holidays in a year, and wants someone they can trust blindly. Ease India Travel does its best to ensure that these precious holidays are indeed, precious. We call these holidays, Unbackpacking Holidays.
Most of all, as a founder, I am one call away should there be a problem of any kind. This is also because I work with partners in most destinations, and work on keeping a friendly and ethical relationship with them. This ensures that my guest is looked after with equal commitment and diligence at the said destination.
The company is growing and we are also working with Travel Experts from around the world – people who know the destination in-depth, can offer similar experiences to our guests, and share our ideology – nothing but the best, for our guest. We don’t take on any one until we have conducted our own recces.
As an aside, and just for your understanding, I am a huge proponent of giving back to the communities I promote. We have given money to rebuild a monastery in Bhutan, which was burnt down a few years ago. We also spearheaded the collection of funds to install a solar water pump in a remote Bastar village so that women, pregnant women and menstruating girls don’t have to carry water from the stream to their homes.
What challenges did you face while kick-starting your venture?
One of the foremost challenges was of cash flow. I was doing quite well after we started operations in 2017, until we hit our first ‘low season’ and cash flow became a problem. Over the past two years, we have worked on improving this situation and there is a promising change already.
There was also another huge challenge I faced when I started the company (which I have also written about) which has nothing to do with ‘work’: I was prepared for the long hours, the hard work, the total focus and the commitment etc. as a first time entrepreneur. What I wasn’t prepared for – and I think it was foolish of me to not have thought it through – was that my family needed to be equally prepared for my new life as an entrepreneur.
I took them for granted as they put up with everything – mental absenteeism, frequent trips and the subsequent adjustments they had to make, physical tiredness (most days I didn’t have the energy to hold a conversation at home) and so much more.
My parents got used to getting to know of my travel plans from Facebook (there are innumerable posts where my mum has commented rather worryingly, “Where are you, beta?”), my husband got used to sharing a travel calendar with me and realising that most of his trips home (he’s lived abroad for eight years) clashed with my work trips and my children, bless them, forgave me for missing school events, and sometimes, even important milestones.
They adjusted, but most of all, it is in their understanding of what I am trying to do, that I have found forgiveness for my crazy life as an entrepreneur. I know today, that I could not have done it without them.
Where are you travelling next to?
Well, I am off to the Kumbh Mela for photography and then to my second home, Bhutan, with a group of senior citizens who are celebrating the Golden Jubilee of leaving 10th grade in 1969! We’ve planned their entire holiday and are very excited to watch this group of about 36 people bond and exult in the memories of their school days, in one of the happiest countries in the world!
If you had to give 3 pieces of advice to solo women travellers in India, what would they be?
Feminism aside, we are responsible for our own safety and we must take all precautions to be safe – be it in the way we dress, way we conduct ourselves (don’t drink too much when in strange company), and etc.
Travelling solo gives you time to think about yourself and your place in this world. Make the most of it.
Travelling solo is NOT selfish. It is a journey to self discovery and you should never let society, conditioning, parents, spouse or children tell you otherwise.
Being an entrepreneur is a lot of work. How do you not crack under pressure?
I will be very honest here – I used to. I used to crack under pressure. I used to have sleepless nights. I had even stopped working out. But a few months ago, I had a huge health scare (the doctor thought it was the C word) and I decided that I would need to change everything if I wanted to truly ‘live’.
Now, I meditate. I workout at least 5 mornings a week; gymming, yoga and hiking up the innumerable hills (tekdis) around Pune. I eat consciously. I sleep on time. And I give my family the time they deserve by not bringing work home in the evenings and weekends.
Some days are tough, there are innumerable challenges and not all of them can be tackled, controlled or dealt with. So I make my peace with them and move on.
For example, a recent partnership in Spain was called off by the other party because they were shutting the company down. A year ago, I’d have lost my cool and my sleep, perhaps in that order. Not anymore. We parted ways very amicably and promised to keep in touch, and I began my search for a reliable business partner in Spain.
In my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve realised that there is nothing called work-life balance. Life, is itself, about balance. My endeavour is to lead a balanced life. Work is worship, but not at the cost of my health and well-being.
13. Lastly, what kind of a traveller are you?
This is going to sound very strange but the simple answer is – the crazy kind.
See, I’ve been to Bhutan 17 times in nearly seven years (I leave for my 18th trip on 28 February) and many of those trips were made before I started my company because I love the country so much. So year after year, when I’d be able to save enough money to take a holiday, I’d go back to Bhutan. My friends thought I was crazy.
Similarly, I am happy to keep going back to Himachal, or Coorg, or Bastar, to take road trips on the same roads, to go back to the same places and explore some new ones as well, to uncover more layers of the communities I mingle with, to have diverse experiences and to marvel at the resilience of humans! I’ve seen people with so much struggle and yet, so much optimism, that it has changed the way I live, feel, work… I feed off the energies of those I meet and that is what travel means to me.
I tell everyone around me that I haven’t seen many countries, but ask me how many times I’ve gone to the ones I have! I am also, in my heart, a backpacker, though my company doesn’t offer backpacking holidays. I am happy to take state transport buses, and trains and stay in small lodges and hotels, because that is where I see the real India.
I behave like a native/local when I travel – someone who deeply respects local culture and beliefs. I may not believe in God, but when I enter a place of worship, I accord it the respect that is expected. I’ve allowed a soothsayer to read my future and a tribal medicine man to check me and even give me medicines!
Since activism is second nature to me, I am also dabbling with eco-travelling and encourage all my guests to try it too. Consumption of bottled water, long showers, disposing too much plastic (shampoo sachets, and etc.) in the host country are things I am trying to consciously avoid. I hope I can get better with every trip.